Do some lives matter more than others?

Screenshot of Garissa University College website.

Are some lives worth more than others?

This poignant question is making the rounds on social media after an Al-Shebaab terrorist attack killed 147 people and wounded 104 at a university in eastern Kenya on Thursday. The massacre, which targeted Christian students at the Garissa University College, represents the worst terrorist attack on Kenyan soil in more than 15 years.

Support for the victims and their families is now pouring in from all corners of the world via Twitter as local and international media report on the latest developments, including body counts, the arrest of suspects, terrorist threats and new internal security measures in Kenya.

A number of international governments – including Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. – have condemned the massacre in public statements, but have offered little tangible support beyond continued partnership and condolences.

Even in Kenya, President Uhuru Kenyatta took more than two days to comment on the massive death toll and address the nation for the first time since Thursday afternoon.

Kenyans are now questioning whether the lack of local and international action in response to the carnage is related to the fact that the victims were poor. They compare its reception with that of the 2013 Al-Shebaab attack on Nairobi’s upscale Westgate Mall, which left at least 67 dead and 175 wounded, many of whom were foreign nationals.

“Westgate got 1000 times more empathy than #GarissaAttack. Difference between rich and poor,” tweeted Kenyan national, Miano Dennis.

“In the wake of #garissa attack life goes (on) in kenya. #westgate the rich died, we were paralysed. Uhuru declared 3 days of national mourning,” tweeted another, Stephen Mwatha.
Though it’s impossible to directly correlate local and international response to tragedy with the purse of its victims, terrorist attacks that affect developed countries appear to spark more outrage.

In January, millions of people around the world held demonstrations and candlelight vigils after the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris, which left 11 dead and 11 wounded, and when two people died in the December 2014 Sydney hostage crisis, memorials were set up all over Australia.

A multinational response is now being coordinated to combat the Islamist militant group Boko Haram in Nigeria, but when more than 2,000 Nigerians died during an attack in Baga, the event barely broke ‘trending’ on Twitter. In fact, former Nigerian President Jonathan Goodluck is infamous for his failure to address the event while offering condolences to victims of the killings in France.

In Kenya, residents are calling for more local and international media as they continue to refer back to the Westgate siege.  Despite having less than half the death toll of the attack in Garissa, the 2013 raid warranted a full three days of national mourning and co-ordinated intelligence assistance from agencies in Canada, Germany, the UK, Israel and others.

"This time around the president has not even bothered to address the country,” said Boniface Mwangi, renowned Kenyan activist and award-winning photojournalist. “It shows that I think, with the president’s behaviour and as a country, we don’t care when the poor die.”

He speculated that because most of the Westgate victims were foreign nationals or middle-class Kenyans, the event struck a much stronger chord at home and abroad than the brutal assault in Garissa.

“Middle-class people are not affected this weekend, travel was not suspended and people went on with their normal lives,” he said. “Yes they are complaining, there is a lot of anger, but (the real tragedy) is hidden from our view. We can’t see the victims (in Garissa), we can’t see the horror of watching it happen.”

Of course no one’s life is worth more than another’s, but for survivors and mourning family members in Garissa, it sure feels that way.

In the meantime, Canadians and other Westerners concerned about terrorism and the targeting of religious groups should take strong notice of the events in Kenya. The victims of Garissa were not wealthy, Al-Shebaab doesn’t have the shocking effective media savvy of ISIS, and Canada does not have any forces combatting terrorism in this part of the world, but imagine what the response would be if this had happened to you.

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