Column Road Comment

What merits a minute’s silence?

Source: pixel2013 / 2180 images (via Pixabay)

By Karis Pearson and George Blake

What is a minute’s silence? Put most simply, it is a national gesture of respect and remembrance which can theoretically, be any length of time. In the UK, we are probably most familiar with the two minutes silence, the annual special length set aside to remember the enormity of deaths during the world wars. But, in the past, three-minute silences have also been observed worldwide, both 10 days after the Asian tsunami and after 9/11 and in Spain there was a five-minute silence after the Madrid train bombings of 2004.

Following the horrific attack in Christchurch, New Zealand last month, where 50 people were killed, the international community witnessed many tributes, but perhaps most notably, a minute’s silence. This week, I ask, what justifies a minute’s silence, and how might the way we practice it in western society, fuel a disparity in our sympathies for victims of the atrocities which they mark versus the ones they do not?

When faced with a horrific event, the least we can do is remain silent for 60 seconds to pay tribute to those affected, even if this is simply to alleviate their guilt or to feel like they have done something, right? But, what does it say when national tributes for the dead and injured are more frequently shown for western and British audiences?

There is a sentiment embedded in western society, that the loss of some lives warrants more mourning than others and this is at its clearest when atrocities which occur on western soil instil greater affect in the UK population than those which occur in more ‘abstract’ locations. Take the UK’s response to the 2015 Paris attacks, which killed 130 people over the course of two days; anyone with a Facebook page saw the sympathies of the masses light up the social network with the French flag, with users adopting it as their profile frame. What does it say, that the deaths of 130 victims in France, 50 in New Zealand, and 38 (mostly Brits) in Tunisia warrants a minute’s silence while the death of 85 Syrian civilians by a US air-strike, or the deaths of 750 plus people in Mozambique, does not?

What determines this disparity; is it the number of deaths? The manner of deaths? Where these deaths occurred? The rarity of such events? Or the demographics of the victims?

Tragic events which occur in the UK, or that impact British citizens are, for obvious reasons, far more likely to warrant a UK wide tribute, purely for geographic proximity to victims and national connection, they will rank as more newsworthy to British audiences. Nevertheless, this should not mean the media downplay the importance of deaths by non-British nationals. The British media’s favouring of British victims has arguably gone too far, to the point where the media coverage of disasters such as the 2019 January Nairobi Hotel attack and the Ethiopian Airlines crash, focused disproportionately on the British lives lost, despite the fact that British nationals accounted for 4% & 4.4% of all victims.

Don’t get me wrong, this is only part of the problem, as even terrorist attacks or events that impact upon no British citizens at all (such as the Christchurch attack) can receive an abundance of tributes from Britain so as long as they meet an undefined list of ‘British disaster criteria’.

This western viewpoint from which the UK, and other nations, see the world is harmful to how we view attacks again non-Brits and atrocities in ‘abstract’ nations. Take Yemen – dubbed the “forgotten war” by Amnesty International; UN officials have accused the world of ignoring the crisis, which killed 50,000 children in 2017 as a result of malnutrition. The country is on the brink of a national famine that could kill millions more, yet the world stands idly by and does nothing. Not even a minute’s silence is held, although what exactly that would achieve is unclear.

Due to the high frequency of tragedies in conflict/terrorism prone areas, it would no doubt be impractical to hold a minute’s silence to remember all of those who die, and on such a regular basis. But, on the contrary, if people fell silent every week to pay tribute to those who died in an atrocity in Yemen or Syria (or numerous other countries which are equally or even more ignored) , maybe it would help wake the world up to the atrocities and increase pressure on governments to step in.

How aware we are of the conflicts, terrorist attacks, and tragedies that occur all over the world, through how they have been reported, is largely down to the UK media. The media sets the tone for how deep our sympathies go, especially for victims in ‘far-away’ nations which many of us have no affiliation with, and the presence of particular conflicts and atrocities in our media brings them even closer to home, generating a mentality of “it could’ve been me’”. A failure to sufficiently cover issues in ‘non-western’ countries, including the continuing crises in Yemen and Syria, is reflected in the lack of tributes paid to these victims. There have been 587 terror attacks in 2019, killing 2476 people, yet, ask anyone, and they will most likely only be aware of one: Christchurch.

When a minute (or two’s) silence takes place across the international community, it touches all corners of life, from workplaces to sports stadiums. If you dare utter a sound during the minute’s silence, or fail to realise the tribute is taking place, are you disrespecting the dead? To many, probably, when in fact you’re just meriting it with the same level of contempt given to thousands of other innocent victims?

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