Not everyday do we see nearly 150 university students killed in a mass shooting. But could it be that we don’t hear about it at all?
On April 2, the Islamist militant group al-Shaabab claimed responsibility for the massacre at Garissa University in Kenya earlier that day. After entering the campus grounds and shooting the guards, the four militants began firing in the library and classrooms, killing 148 students and wounding another 80. Though the militants claimed to have released Muslims and killed only Christians, the attack was seemingly random and targeted all groups, especially women.
Al-Shaabab was also the perpetrator behind the Westgate shopping mall attack in September 2013, which killed nearly 70 and wounded 175. A jihadist terrorist group with around 8,000 members, al-Shaabab pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2012 and continuously launches attacks in Kenya. Hardly a week earlier, al-Shaabab attacked Hotel Maka Al Mukaram in Mogadishu, killing 20 and wounding another 30.
In fact, al-Shaabab conducts so many attacks in Kenya—whether it be skirmishes with local military forces or large civilian massacres—that each specific one does nothing but paint a larger picture. In fact, they lose individual significance. Could that be why we students hardly hear about, or even care about, events of such stupendous magnitude?
Al-Shaabab’s attacks are not about demonstrating international power. They don’t have international consequence, and matter even less perhaps for countries like the U.S. What they do show is their ability to frustrate the Kenyan government in an everyday setting, such as schools or malls. Not only are they more vulnerable; attacking a glamorous mall or newly constructed school is more symbolic than functional. Perhaps that’s why fundamentalist groups such as al-Shaabab continue to survive and thrive: their threat is local, and their opposition is weak.
And maybe that shows something about American foreign policy towards radical Islamic groups in the Middle East and Africa: the drone strike and the bolstering of a naturally weak leadership is not the right way to confront fundamentalism. Instead, the U.S. should focus their help on the local level, because Kenya’s problems are local.
Building a capable nation requires time, so that local political and economic divisions can be solved. This means building a capable economy in both Kenya and Somalia, where al- Shaabab is based. Ending this economic misery eliminates the perfect environment for such radical terrorist groups. But there is a larger problem than al-Shaabab for the U.S., and that’s the absence of attention towards events like the university shooting. The Garissa University massacre did not spawn the massive social media outburst like #freeourgirls or #JeSuisCharlie.
Stéphane Charbonnier and four other cartoonists were killed for publishing what they believed in, and their names will be remembered as symbols of free speech. But those 150 students were killed for learning, for trying to better their futures and worshiping different Gods. Will the deaths of these students have the same symbolic meaning than the attack on Charlie Hebdo?
Most likely not, and it spawns the crucial question: why not? What makes the attack on Charlie Hebdo so much more striking and important than the shooting at Garissa University?
The first consideration is location. Is it possible that Charlie Hebdo received more attention simply because it occurred in Paris? Perhaps, but then we remember that #freeourgirls began because of the kidnapping of 200 female students in Nigeria. Could it be the perpetrators of the killings? It’s unlikely. Radical Muslims carried out the assassinations of Charlie Hebdo columnists. Islamic fundamentalists also carried out the abduction of the Nigerian girls.
What about the ideals that the killings symbolized? The assassinations of Charlie Hebdo journalists reinvigorated support for free speech, while the abduction in Nigeria demonstrated the universal right to an education. But the same goes for the attack at Garissa University. So where is the discrepancy?
A final consideration is that the attack in Kenya was a more local problem than the attack in Paris or the kidnappings in Nigeria. The attack on Charlie Hebdo was conducted by French Muslims because for many years the newspaper’s satirists had been slamming and mocking Muhammad and Islam under the protection of free speech. In Nigeria, the 200 schoolgirls were abducted because the Islamist group Boko Haram, who carried out the kidnappings, disliked the new style of Western education that was “corrupting” Africa and wanted a return to traditional Islamic education. In contrast, however, the recent massacre in Kenya was merely one piece of a thread of constant attacks carried out by a dangerous but overall typical fundamentalist group. The attack in Kenya had little to no international implications—and though one could argue that the other two events did not either, the attack on Kenya was motivated almost solely by local reasons. Undermining a nation’s local security is not symbolically the same as assassinating members of a famous satirical newspaper or kidnapping hundreds of schoolgirls.
Ultimately, that’s the danger we face: ignorance to the real problems. We can continue to fight a war against a danger we cannot see—radicalism and fundamentalism in a religion that’s becoming widely scrutinized—but we will not be able to restore peace if we continue to turn blind eyes towards an actual problem. Radical Islamic terrorist groups are continuing to pose real threats in Africa, the Middle East, and increasingly in the West and in Europe. But that problem lies in Kenya, and other African countries where attacks and conflicts are daily occurrences, not in Paris or Washington, where threats are only that and one attack grabs historic attention.
All of these events are horrific. Assassinations of Parisian journalists threaten American newspapers and massacres in Kenya frighten students at home. But to address the long-term problem, we need to consider the problem in Kenya as well as Paris, and we need to force ourselves to look at the problem we face, because every one of the terrifying events should deserve our attention.