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Culture & Religion

Why Are Some Lives Worth More Than Others?

Everyone you pass on the street, each person you drive by every day, has a story as well. To claim their death is not worth noticing is to say that their life was not worth living. And that’s too bad, because interdependence is something we all rely on every single day, knowingly or not. 

Tinariwen is, in my estimation, one of the best live bands on the planet. While such a declaration is obviously subjective, I’ve watched hundreds of bands from around the planet perform in my former job as a world music journalist, and this clan from the Sahara desert in northern Mali has a passion for performance that I’ve rarely seen.

Part of this is political: founder Ibrahim Ag Alhabib watched his father be executed in 1963; later he ran from Mali for 26 years. As a Tuareg, he was accustomed to a nomadic lifestyle. He fell in love with music while on exile in Libya, fashioning his first six-string from a tin can and bicycle brake wire. 

In 1980, Alhabib was part of a wave of Tuaregs who received military training from Gaddafi, which he put to use a decade later when his people revolted against the Malian government. Although Tinariwen was founded around the time he began training, the band wouldn’t find international fame until roughly three decades. They often played for and among the soldiers.

Politics and music are facets of one reality for Tuaregs — guns and guitars both have value in the proper circumstances. Yet more recently a splintering occurred. Whereas the previous uprisings were for independence from the Malian government, a 2012 rebellion saw more extreme forms of Islamism appear: Those rebelling against the government shut down music. Bands like Tinariwen, which once provided a soundtrack for rebellion, were forced back into exile as Tuareg groups aligned with al Qaeda-linked militants.

In the three years since, not much has changed. In fact, five people were killed in a recent nightclub attack in Bamako. These numbers are dwarfed by the over 13,000 people murdered and 1.5 million made homeless in Nigeria since the Islamic-linked Boko Haram began their own rebellion in 2009. Both Mali and Nigeria — two of the most musical countries in Africa — have been undergoing serious civil strife over the last few years, with barely a mention in the American press. Regardless, these are all lives unfortunately caught in the crossfire, and those lives matter. 

Or do they?

Humans have a limited attention span and capacity for information. Yet when the American (and global) media spent weeks highlighting the equally disgusting murders at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, attention would not stray from the screen. One murder is not more important than another, yet as a nation we seem to believe so.

These stories are linked, importantly, to religious extremism — or, perhaps more realistically in Africa, to longstanding tribal feuds involving power and territory using religion as a mask. Sadly we pick and choose which stories to pay attention to based on the relative worth we assign the victims. 

We don’t have to gaze overseas to observe this trend. While the murders of Eric Garner and Michael Brown (rightfully) sparked rage and impatience with incompetent policing, the recent shooting of a homeless man in downtown Los Angeles went viral for roughly two hours with nothing heard again, save a few local protests. As in Garner’s case video captured the brutal killing, but somehow it didn’t grip our consciousness in the same way.

Neurologically speaking, humans are capable of processing 120 bits of information per second. Holding a conversation with one person requires 60 bits. Besides being rude, texting while having a conversation taxes your ability to process what is going on. It makes sense that we can only focus on a limited number of things at once. In fact, according to neuroscientist Dan Levitin, writing in The Organized Mind:

During our leisure time, not counting work, each of us processes 34 gigabytes or 100,000 words every day.

To say that we’re under assault — from internet ads to billboards to the chattering of street noise — is an understatement. And yet, this acute focus on a few particular injustices at the expense of many is troubling. Each of those people have a history, a story, much like Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, an incredible musician who has taken a life of uncertainty and turmoil and created something beautiful from it. 

In fact, sitting with the band one evening before a show at New York City’s Le Poisson Rouge, members told me they were tired from months on the road sleeping in hotels. They preferred their tents in the desert. (Their latest EP was recorded in Joshua Tree, spectacularly capturing their sound in a more natural environment to them.) The problem is, if you only know the term “Tuareg” from the recent extremism in Mali, you’d probably have missed the nuances of what that culture entails and how good a large portion of the population is. We read the headline, connect the names, make an assumption, and move on, if we pay attention at all.

This isn’t romanticizing the hard sands of desert floor. Yet it does remind us that everyone you pass on the street, each person you drive by every day, has a story as well. To claim their death is not worth noticing is to say that their life was not worth living. And that’s too bad, because interdependence is something we all rely on every single day, knowingly or not. 

This teaching arises from the desert as well. In Rabbinic Judaism, God created Adam, a single man, to teach us that whoever destroyed a single life would be punished as though he had destroyed the world. While I’ve never been sold on the God part, the lesson itself is worth heeding: All lives matter, even those we decide to pay no attention to.

Image: JPL Designs /


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