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Unmasking the Faceless Dead

The only way to humanize violence is to unmask the faceless dead.

Before dawn last Wednesday morning, in the search for the alleged mastermind of the Paris attacks, French police raided an apartment complex in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Dennis, killing two people and wounding eight. According to CNN, gunfire was exchanged for over an hour, and explosions eventually collapsed a whole floor of the apartment complex. Police have yet to release details about who was killed, but word has surfaced about an unusual casualty.

The police dog Diesel, a seven-year-old German Shepherd and bomb squad veteran, died when a currently unidentified woman detonated a suicide vest. On social media, praise for the courageous animal has been effusive. In a nod to the January Charlie Hebdo attacks, the hashtag #JeSuisChien (I am dog) began trending on Twitter, and as I write this, 80,000 people have tweeted expressions of grief and praise:

Diesel deserves all of the posthumous praise received. It is still strange, though, that the heroic canine’s death has become an emotional focal point of the Paris attacks, which killed at least 129 people. The death of one man’s best friend is easier for us to picture, understand and express grief over than human destruction on a quantitatively large scale. Media corporations understand that, so they cover Western tragedies by narrowing their focus and profiling victims.

The news is littered with headlines about individuals: a girl losing her boyfriend; a father losing his daughter; families unsure if their loved ones are okay. Media websites have profiled the students, lawyers, executives, restaurant managers, retailers, people of all ages, nationalities and religions that died. And this exhaustive effort to unmask the victims of violence, both human and canine, highlights the human relationships destroyed in the attack, stimulating our grief, fear and anger more than casualty numbers could.

Joseph Stalin, a man intimately acquainted with mass murder, is reported to have said that “one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic.” The psychological effect is well-understood – study after study has shown that faces, not numbers, tug at our emphatic heartstrings. That’s why we currently feel more for a courageous German Shepherd than for the quarter-million malnourished children in Somalia. It is an unfortunate, almost pathological fact about humanity that our brains are simply not wired to emote over faceless numbers.

The dark side of human empathy is that when victims remain anonymous, we often remain indifferent. Last month, ISIS took credit for the destruction of a Russian passenger airliner, killing all 224 people on board. The day before the Paris attacks, ISIS operatives committed a double-suicide bombing in the shopping district of Beirut, killing 43 people and injuring more than 200. Last week, in the Nigerian city of Yola, suicide bombers from Boko Haram killed 32 people and injured 80. Social media attention for each incident was comparatively miniscule next to the outpouring of grief about Diesel.

The best comparison to the Paris attacks was an April massacre in Northeastern Kenya. Al-Shabaab gunman stormed Garissa University College, killing the two guards and 146 students. Garissa is the only postsecondary institution in the province, meaning that these students were some of Kenya’s best and brightest. The story made headlines for a few days, but it soon disappeared altogether. The victims were never profiled, their stories never shared. We never heard from their parents, siblings or spouses.

It is difficult not to be cynical when asking why the US media is so selective about profiling victims of violence. The students in Kenya were Black, non-Western and from a “developing” country. The victims in Nigeria were from a country so poor that it can’t afford to invest in agriculture. And the victims of the Russian plane crash belonged to the United States’ often vilified geopolitical adversary.

The media’s victim-oriented blind spot grows exponentially when dealing with victims of Western-perpetrated violence. For example, according to a 2014 analysis by the rights group Reprieve, in the process of targeting 24 men in Pakistan, US drones killed 874 people, including an estimated 142 children. What have corporate US media outlets done to profile these innocent victims of the “War on Terror?” Not only do they remain faceless, but their deaths are covered up by state secrecy.

The only way to humanize violence is to unmask the faceless dead. While the Paris attacks deserve all the attention they are receiving, it is important not to condemn other tragedies to meaningless, quantitative abstraction. Hopefully in addition to #JeSuisChien, we will see #JeSuisBeirut and #JeSuisGarissa.

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