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Mogadishu is new, yet ancient. Continuously inhabited since 200 B.C.E., it is the tenth oldest city in all of Northern Africa. Today, it is the capital of Somalia. Set in the cradle of the Indian Ocean, it is a coastal city marked by prominent minarets and large mosques that accommodate thousands of worshippers. The city is loud and bustling, filled with universities and stadiums, markets and ports. Over one million people call it home.
This past Saturday, Mogadishu was wracked with a massive truck bomb that detonated in the district of Hodan. The bomb killed more than 300 people, and injured over 500 others. That’s far more than the death toll of attacks in Boston, Fort Hood, San Bernandino, Quebec, Paris, London, Manchester, and Barcelona combined. Even now, scores remain missing. The bomb caused a hotel to collapse, demolished nearby buildings, and crushed vehicles that were parked on the street. It was followed by the sirens of ambulances, international pleas for help, and a death toll that kept on rising. It was met with several perfunctory news articles, a smattering of tweets, and a hailstorm of images that were difficult to look at.
And then, silence.
There were no hashtags. There was no filter or check in on Facebook. There were no articles written about the residents of the city. There was no national outcry, no presidential condemnation, no halting of the news cycle. There was no outrage.
Amidst this silence, there have been some expressions of frustration with the disregard. Somalis have started fundraising campaigns and have found ways to help find missing persons. But America’s overwhelming response to the horrifying tragedy in Somalia has been silence. It has been turning away and moving on. And this silence screams lack of empathy. In a global society, such lack of empathy is absolutely unjustifiable. It serves only to divide. It dehumanizes people of color who are thousands of miles away, and it dehumanizes people of color who are right next door.
Those of us who are other understand this. We know the dichotomy of tragedy exists, and we see it constantly. We see it in the outcry, the pain, the concerts, the support that is afforded to London and Paris and Barcelona. And then we see it in the cold shoulder, the curt statements, the silence that is granted to Somalia and Myanmar and Kashmir.
We see it in how the tragedy is depicted. On one hand, there is the warmth of candlelight vigils, the hurt of crying parents embracing, and the power of people coming together. And on the other is the rubble of buildings and the piling of bodies. We see the commodification and dehumanization of brown bodies in the aftermath of tragedy. The image of a child, face down in the sand, is sold for shock value as his life is forgotten. In some countries (those ones, the ones far away) violence is a fact, a truth, not something to resist, but something to shrug at and then move on. Something to mention as a passing note, if at all, and then—silence.
We see it in what the facts are. We watch as black and brown people who die at the hands of militant groups go ignored. After all, how can the Muslim be the victim when he is so obviously the attacker? We see that our media’s depiction of violence is not even true to the facts of the matter. And we watch as the media ignores the attacks that do not fit the narrative.
We see it here at home too. We watch as the victims of police brutality, who are children and women and all innocents are brutalized in life and vilified in death. And we understand that the the same fate does not befall even white men who go on shooting rampages.
And so we know that America does not value black and brown lives in the same way that it values white lives.
It is horrific that we are forced to compare tragedy. Any life lost is a life worth mourning, remembering, and fighting for. But this lack of empathy has to be acknowledged, because it has very real consequences. It distorts facts and breeds ignorance. It makes us less empathetic to those who are different, and that makes it harder for us to know one another. And so we slide farther back into our silos instead of growing emotional understanding.
Because even though the average American might not look like the average Somali, that does not mean that the average American should not care for the average Somali. And there is so much more to America than the “average American.” Whitewashing America erases millions in this country, and it erases the struggle for pluralism that American society is constantly engaged in. If we can only understand and feel and advocate for those who are like us, we are destined to remain separate from those in our classes and in our workplaces, in our neighborhoods and in our cities, who look nothing like us.
Lack of empathy drives us further and further apart, both globally and locally. To achieve change, and to achieve unity, we must achieve empathy first. Now, it is our responsibility to reject silence in favor of speaking up and reaching out. Because the silence in the wake of this attack in Somalia echoes in America. You can hear it, can’t you?
Shireen Younus ’20 is a Crimson Editorial editor in Pforzheimer House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.
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