Sunday, February 21, 2010

"Selective outrage", or "Why nuking Japan was no big deal"

On March 9th 1945 American bombers flew over Tokyo, spraying incendiary bombs down onto the sleeping city. The bombing went on for hours as fires spread across the city, leaving 100,000 dead and a million homeless by the morning.

In terms of immediate destruction this was probably worse than the atom bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Today there is still anger and debate about the nuclear attacks, yet the indiscriminate slaughter of the fire bombing goes largely unmentioned. So do many other atrocities of World War II: the Allied bombing of German cities, the destruction of Yellow River levees by the Chinese Nationalists that killed 800,000 Chinese in 1938, the Three Alls ("Kill All", "Burn All" and "Loot All") policy of Imperial Japan that may have killed 2.7 million Chinese or the mass murder of Polish prisoners of war by the Soviets in 1940.

Some atrocities cause outrage, some do not.

In Ireland Oliver Cromwell’s massacres are well remembered, as are the Penal Laws, the Great Famine, the Black and Tans and various other Norman and English atrocities.

But before the Normans invaded Ireland was in a state of seething war between rival kings, Irish and Viking. Before the Vikings started raiding Ireland’s monasteries, the Irish were raiding them cheerfully too. 5th century Ireland had a booming slave trade – remember that Saint Patrick was abducted by Irish raiders in Wales – and the Irish may have invaded Scotland. These terrible acts are quietly dismissed while the demonisation of imperial Britain continues.

Grand narratives
One reason for this selective outrage is that local historical events are often interpreted in terms of grand global narratives. These narratives come and go with time, and they help to shape what events are considered important by placing them in an easily understood context.

In 19th century Britain, one powerful narrative was of the struggle between civilised man and the savage. It was politically convenient to depict colonial subjects in Africa, Asia and even Ireland as being backward and barbaric – childlike in their violence, superstition and the need of a firm guiding hand from their British superiors. In this context, violence by British colonists against natives could be underplayed, while violence by the 'savage' natives emphasised.

After World War II a new global narrative began to gain purchase: that of the Noble Savage living in harmony with nature and his neighbours, only to be brutally oppressed by decadent Europeans. This gives us another template to understand the world: whenever a Western country finds itself at war with a non-Western country, the former is an aggressive imperialist, the latter an innocent freedom-fighter.

These grand global narratives can be embraced by combatants in small, regional conflicts, in order to win popular support abroad. Hence I found myself surprised to see Communists from Pakistan and Canada cheering on Real IRA violence in Northern Ireland, because the Real IRA managed to present themselves as socialist freedom-fighters struggling against the old imperialist enemy of Britain. Without this Cold War-era narrative, Irish nationalist paramilitaries may have had difficulty in finding support abroad – the narrative allowed foreigners to slot Nationalists, Loyalists and the British government into general global roles of good and bad guys, victims and aggressors.

Symbols are more important than statistics here. The nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki attract more outrage than the more destrucive fire-bombing because the nuclear attacks are more symbolic – with the gloriously awful imagery of the mushroom cloud – and because they seemed to hint at future catastrophic violence. Yet this is a poor reason to become outraged when so many other World War II atrocities go ignored.

This also explains why the Danish Muhammad cartoons caused so much excitement and controversy: it fit a pre-existing grand narrative depicting Europeans as being engaged in a sneaky assault on Islam, another Crusade under the pretence of free speech. The cartoons were not automatically controversial, though, it needed the work of Danish imans who took them to Muslim countries and pushed a negative interpretation to stir up outrage. An Egyptian newspaper also ran the cartoons but Egypt was spared the outrage aimed at European countries where the cartoons ran – because Egypt didn't fit the narrative.

Some Muslims get enraged at Israel and NATO for violence against their Muslim brethren in Palestine, Iraq or Afghanistan. Meanwhile China and Burma oppress Muslim minorities without a whisper of discontent from abroad – China and Burma just don’t fit the pleasing narrative of Muslims being attacked by Westerners. Instead they present a much more awkward narrative, one rather difficult to manipulate: of Muslims being in conflict with everyone.

Israel is a perfect example of selective outrage. When a thousand people die violently in Israel or Palestine it becomes a much bigger story than ten thousand in sub-Saharan Africa. People all over the world are projecting grand narratives onto Israel. For some it is a hangover from the Cold War-era interpretation: the US-backed Israel versus the Soviet-backed Arabs. For others it is religious: Christian, Jewish and Muslim struggles for the Holy Land. Still others see it as the stand of natives versus invaders, civilisation versus savagery, Europe versus Asia and so on.

The interpretations are fought over – the consensus that conflict in Israel matters (and carnage in Congo doesn’t) is not.

Most people will not lose sleep over Africans killing other Africans because it isn’t easy to understand, there are no good guys. But Muslims killing Jews or Americans killing Communists – these are easy to apply simplistic templates to, and thus these are the conflicts that inspire outrage.

Nuking Japan was a big deal, the attacks were nightmarish atrocities on largely civilian targets. But they were not the only atrocities of the mid-20th century, and we should not let emotion and convenient political narratives twist our understanding of this historical fact.


  1. A favourite example of mine is the sad story of Western Sahara. There are many striking similarities to the Israel-Palestine conflict, especially to those who see the Israelis as colonial invaders and oppressors.

    The Moroccoans and Mauritanians invaded the former colony when the colonial masters, Spain, pulled out in the 1970's. They met resistance from the Polisario, a guerilla group who had fought the Spanish and who wanted independence for Western Sahara (from Spain, Morocco and Mauritania), and a guerilla war ensued. Mauritania pulled out, but Morocco and the Polisario (supported by Morocco's neighbour and rival, Algeria) kept fighting until a 1991 ceasefire agreement. Tens of thousands of Sahrawis (the people who live in Western Sahara) fled to Algeria and still live in refugee camps. Meanwhile, Morocco has brought in tens of thousands of settlers (in addition to tens of thousands of soldiers) to Western Sahara, making them a demographic majority. They have built a wall which passes through the whole country to keep out the Polisario.

    The conflict is different from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in lots of ways, of course, but it has a lot of the same elements: An unresolved ethnic conflict, chaos upon the exit of a colonial power, meddling from several regional powers, thousands of refugees who claim a right to return, a large settler movement from the occupying country and a long, controversial and symbolic wall to seperate the sides.

    Yet Western Sahara get almost no media attention at all, but Israel is in the news weekly. It's because no-one can project anything onto the sides of the conflict. Both sides are muslims, there is no significant meddling from western countries, no significant capitalist-communist or democratic-authoritarian divide, both countries are former colonies and the region is of scant historic or symbolic importance to anybody but those who live there.

  2. Well said Vidar. Another example is of the Indonesian annexation of Western New Guinea after the Dutch colonists left. The Dutch opposed the takeover, but the US supported it to prevent the Indonesians turning to Soviet aid instead.

    So the Americans backed violent Indonesian colonisation of Western New Guinea. This turns the modern popular narrative (of the American "Great Satan" oppressing Muslims) on its head and as a result it attracts little attention, while the more convenient narratives surrounding Israel and Palestine cause that conflict to fill front pages around the world.

  3. Hi Shane, I've been really enjoying your blog. Keep it up! I'm often frustrated by the media's ability to obsess over certain issues while virtually ignoring events of great significance elsewhere. One example is the plight of the Uyghur people in northwest China, receiving scant attention next to their neighbours in Tibet, who are facing a very similar struggle. Is it because they lack Hollywood and pop stars to champion their cause? Or is it because a land of gentle Buddhists is a more appealing thought to westerners than the idea of another 'scary' Muslim state?

    There was a recent episode of Charlie Brooker's Newswipe which had an interesting segment on the news 'narrative'; worth watching:

  4. Many good points here, and I agree with your general sentiment.

    However, I don't think it's as simple as you make it seem, especially in regards to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The difference between the fire bombings (which, btw, are taught about in conjunction w/a-bomb teachings here in the U.S.) and the atomic bombings is the lasting effects of the latter. No only did the atomic bombs instantly wipe out a huge number of people, it left enough radiation in the air to continually disfigure and harm people for the next 50+ years. To be frank, it IS a bigger deal than the fire bombings, especially to those Japanese who survived only to give birth to dead or deformed children, or to those who died slow deaths from various radiation-related diseases and illnesses. I can tell you for certain that many wished to be a dead statistic when faced with years of hardships that resulted from the a-bombings.

    In any case, you've certainly stirred people to think about the atrocities inflicted on humans by other humans - always a difficult but necessary task.

  5. Hey Tim, thanks very much for the comment!

    Totally agree regarding the differing responses to alleged oppression in Tibet and Xinjiang and I suspect you're right: the Buddhists managed somehow to present themselves as being peace-loving victims, but the Muslims had difficulty with that!

    What annoys me is not that people interpret history with these narratives, but that so many journalists buy into them. I think journalists should be always critical of these knee-jerk narrative templates.

  6. Thanks so much for the comment Clare! Well I get your concern: the nuclear attacks were particularly grisy ways of killing people.

    Nonetheless I can't imagine a survivor of the Allied fire-bombings, or of the Chinese Nationalist floods, or the German Blitz on Britain, etc. would feel relieved that their family was killed by more conventional means.

    Burning to death, enslaved and dying in labour camps, gang-raped and murdered - these seem just as horrible as death by radiation sickness, even if they are more immediate.

    To my knowledge the radiation did not linger in Hiroshima and Nagasaki for decades. The poster above you, Timothy, lived in Nagasaki city but seems pretty healthy now! The cities have normal rates of radiation today, but survivors of 1945 suffered for many decades.

    There is a tendency to demonise more spectacular events of violence, as well as those which fit into convenient grand narratives. Thousands of murders may kill more than a dramatic terrorist attack like 9/11 but disproportionate attention and outrage will be given to the relatively less destructive terrorist attack.

    In the same sense, Lawrence Keeley's "War Before Civilization" points out that even though modern interstate wars killed more people, primitive pre-state, tribal wars killed a higher PROPORTION of people. While the nukes and concentration camps of World War II horrify us - correctly - many people dismiss the horror of continuous small-scale battles and raids in pre-modern societies, even though they are relatively more destructive. I think we should try to look past these assumptions, and question these narratives.

    Thanks a million for commenting, everyone. And yes, Tim, I really enjoy Charlie Brooker's stuff, was thinking of posting one of his little documentaries too :)


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