THE BLOG
01/14/2015 03:36 pm ET Updated Mar 16, 2015

Boko Haram in Baga: One of the Deadliest Terrorist Attacks in Modern History

Sherwin McGehee via Getty Images

Terror has grabbed world headlines this week. The attacks in Paris -- in which terrorists murdered 17 individuals, most in a vicious assault on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo -- have dominated Twitter trends, news feeds, and the mainstream news cycle. Millions participated in protests around the world, which included the largest gathering in French history, to demonstrate solidarity in the face of terror.

But more shocking than what captured global attention is what was neglected. Just as the events in Paris were unfolding, one of the deadliest terror attacks in modern history -- by some accounts second only to the attacks of September 11th, 2001 -- was underway. Did you hear about it?

At dawn on January 3rd, heavily armed terrorists assaulted a military outpost in the town of Baga. After routing the military, the assailants proceeded to massacre civilians throughout 16 nearby villages. On Wednesday, January 7th, they launched a days-long rampage through Baga itself, demolishing buildings and systematically slaughtering civilians at will. Fleeing residents were chased and gunned down on motorcycle. Eyewitnesses report that the entire town was set ablaze, the streets littered with bodies.

The totality of the destruction is yet to be quantified, but by all accounts, it was cataclysmic. Amnesty International estimates the death toll may have surpassed 2,000. Government officials indicate that Baga -- once a home to 10,000 ostensibly under the protection of a multinational military base -- is now "virtually non-existent."

Baga was a town in northeastern Nigeria, and Boko Haram is the group responsible for the slaughter. You may have heard of this attack; you may have not. Ask yourself: is there any chance you would not have known about it had the victims been from a Western country?

It is not hard to understand why a terror attack in Paris would capture more attention in the Western media than one in Nigeria. It is also clear that global outrage towards the attack on Charlie Hebdo is utterly warranted. Beyond the sheer brutality of the rampage, it carries implications for critical issues including freedom of speech and the growing dangers of extremism in Europe. Western audiences are surely justified in our horror at the attack, our compassion for the victims, and our demands for action.

Nevertheless, the contrast between the media's treatment of the attacks in Paris and those in Baga exposes an obscene asymmetry. According to MediaMeter, between January 7th and January 12th, the highest reporting days for both incidents, the top mainstream U.S. news outlets mentioned Charlie Hebdo in 4,349 sentences. Baga: 131. The attack on Baga didn't just fail to spark the same outrage as the attacks in Paris. It was barely mentioned.

This disparity throws into relief an achingly painful reality in which hundreds of African deaths are not afforded a modicum of the grief shown for a single European. Baga's destruction is not just seen as foreign. Far worse: it is simply uninteresting.

Could the asymmetry be due to the fact that the events in Baga lack the international implications of those in Paris? Depressingly, this argument fails to hold up. Baga's conquest has afforded Boko Haram, one of the most vicious Islamic extremist groups on the planet, de facto control over most of the Nigerian state of Borno; by some accounts, it now rules nearly as much land as ISIS. Like ISIS, it has already declared an "Islamic Caliphate" over its territory. Its expansion poses a grave threat to countries in Western Africa, and in turn to the interests and security of their international allies.

It is clear, however, that we cannot solely blame the media for the differing reactions to the two attacks. If people clicked on articles about Nigeria, news outlets would publish them. To understand the factors driving Charlie Hebdo's prominence and Baga's obscurity, we must look to ourselves.

It is easier to empathize with people who are like us. It is more comfortable to read stories that align with our cultural narratives. It is tiring to stay abreast of conflicts that seem to persist endlessly, and for which there is no straightforward solution. Such explanations make sense, and a few may even be justifiable. But they also derive from some of the uglier elements of human nature, and we should not tolerate them.

Terrorism strikes at the values of its victims. It seeks to undermine the moral bedrock on which a society grows. In the face of terror, we strive to reaffirm those ideals. As far as freedom of speech is concerned, protesters around the world have loudly done so.

But our disparate reactions to the deaths in Paris and Baga expose a failure of values that also merits great alarm. The goal should not be to treat all deaths with equal media coverage; context and history will always inform our reactions to such events. Rather, we should strive, in our moral outrage, to reaffirm the most basic principle upon which our societies stand: that all individuals are created equal. We have failed to provide Baga's victims that recognition. As we continue to stand against terrorism, let us demand that all individuals be protected from its reach, not merely those similar to us.