Editor’s Note: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is the author of “Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.
As we watched the death toll in the Syrian civil war climb into the hundreds of thousands, or when we learned that a mother and her little girl in pink shoes froze to death just as they were about to reach safety, or when we watched journalists blown up on live TV, or when we saw photos of a starving child, most of us remained unfazed. But the death of Jamal Khashoggi has reminded the world of the power of its outrage.
The questions now: whether this merited outrage is only a product of 1) the audacity of the crime and 2) the fact that Khashoggi was “one of our own” in the eyes of Washington and international media, a dissident who dared to say what others could not and who paid with his life in the process.
Welcome to the age of selective outrage. Where real and shocking tragedy gets dropped into the icy waters of hyper-partisan politics, decades-long discussions of shared interests and divergent values, and where social media turns up the volume and accelerates the velocity of the discussion to levels previously unknown.
Last week, my email burst with notes from young activists from around the world asking me how it was that this tragedy was the one that got people who don’t normally concern themselves with foreign policy revved up when so many other human rights violations have won only mass indifference? What was it about this one horrific tragedy against a blood-soaked collection of so many others that made it stand out?
The murder of Khashoggi and its attempted cover-up has transformed itself into the “black swan” of global affairs, and the reaction to its brutality has been swift and near-unanimous in an era during which consensus on much of anything has proved elusive. From Paris to Berlin to Washington, Wall Street to Silicon Valley, the fallout has been immediate, even if its duration remains to be seen.
For the last few years, much of the world has been in an outrage lethargy when it comes to human rights violations. The United States seems barely able to rouse itself to react to anything that happens in the Middle East – “isn’t it all a basket case?” seems to be the reigning expression of the current state of exhaustion. A drowned little boy lands on a beach, and for an instant the world thinks about what it would be like to be a father desperate enough on land to risk his entire family’s lives at sea.
And then that instant, like all others, quickly passes. The world’s most vulnerable children face sexual abuse in a refugee camp and barely a reaction is received. Thousands of Yazidis – among them mothers and children – remain missing and those who have returned have only tents to call home. But the world has moved on; no one seems to feel they can do much of anything to make a difference for much of anyone.
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Now comes one death in a global spotlight that has moved and motivated many. A loss that is reverberating globally and reminding the world of what sustained attention can create: a revisiting of norms, a redoubling of effort and a girding of determination to do better and do more to protect the vulnerable. What is not certain is whether this reminder of the power of collective anguish will apply beyond this unique and individual tragedy and extend to so many others who merit the world’s attention.
It is up to us, isn’t it?