Why do we rationalise death on the basis of a back story? | OPINION

I HAVE been thinking a lot lately about the value of human life.

About the lives so cheaply lost on MH17. About the anger and grief this tragedy has unleashed. About the sense of sacredness and solemn ceremony that followed it.

There’s something cathartic about all this.

That we mark this with public grieving tells us these lives are sanctified; that their termination is a blasphemous violation.

On some level this reassures us, which is probably why we pore over news coverage of such events.

But I’ve also been thinking a lot about why it is these lives that have earned such a response.

The more I heard people talk about how 37 Australians were gone, the stranger it sounded.

Something of that magnitude happens just about every week on our roads — in the past week 29 were killed this way.

We held no ceremonies and we had no public mourning of the fact they, too, were no longer with us.

Why? I don’t ask critically, because I’m as unmoved by the road toll as anyone.

But it’s worth understanding how it is we decide which deaths matter and which don’t; which ones are galling and tragic, and which ones are mere statistics.

We tell ourselves we care about the loss of innocent life as though it’s an unwavering principle, but we rationalise most of it.

Here, the most obvious counterpoint is the nightmare in Gaza.

Nearly 600 people — mostly civilians, a third of them children — have been killed.

There’s grief, anger and international hand-wringing, but nothing that compares with the urgency and rage surrounding MH17, even if there is twice the human cost.

If you take your cues from social media, the reason is simple: Palestinians are not rich Westerners, and so their lives don’t matter.

No doubt there’s some truth to this: humans are tribal animals, and we’re as tribal in death as we are in life.

But it’s not a satisfactory explanation, because it comes from people who would exempt themselves from this rule, people who have almost certainly grieved little over the thousands of South Sudanese killed in the past six months.

It’s not merely cultural affinity. Consider the Egyptian press, which has embraced Israel’s side.

“Sorry Gazans, I cannot support you until you rid yourselves of Hamas,” one wrote. Another tweeted “Thank you Netanyahu, and God give us more men like you to destroy Hamas”.

Then she prayed for the deaths of all “Hamas members, and everyone who loves Hamas”.

This is about as thorough a dehumanisation of Gazans as you’ll find anywhere in the world.

It doesn’t matter who dies. It doesn’t matter how many. What matters is their deaths can be used in the story people are so desperate to tell.

That is a universal principle.

It is not merely the deaths that moves us, it is the circumstances.

We pick which deaths to mourn, which to ignore, which to celebrate, and which to rationalise.

Palestinian deaths matter more if you want to tell of Israeli aggression, Israeli deaths matter more if you want to tell of Hamas terrorism, asylum seeker deaths at sea matter more if you want to tell about people smuggling.

But a death in detention trumps all if your story is about government brutality, and a death from starvation matters more if you want to tell a story about global inequality.

MH17 allowed us to mourn and rage because it was a story we were prepared to tell. It’s easy to rage when the plot is of Russian complicity, roguishness and cover-up.

But I naively hope for a world where the value of human life is universal enough that we can outrage ourselves; where we can tell the stories we don’t want to; in which we are neither the heroes nor the victims, but the guilty.

That’s what we’re asking Russia — one day someone mourning no less than we are will ask us.

Waleed Aly is a Fairfax columnist. He hosts Drive on ABC Radio National and is a lecturer in politics at Monash University.