Thursday, July 2, 2009

Why We Love Bahia Bakari, But Not Enough to Know Her Name

It's time for a little honesty. Would all Americans reading this blog please answer the following: Before this week, could you locate the Comoros Islands on a map? Can you locate them now? Do you know why I'm asking? My guess is that the most common answers to those three questions, respectively, is no, probably not but maybe and yes, with a fair number of people answering no for all three (the Quarterback admits that her answers are yes to all three, but only because she is very fond of the quizzes on Sporcle).

On Tuesday morning, a Yemenia Airways plane en route from Sanaa, Yemen to Moroni, Comoros crashed into the Indian Ocean. 152 people died. The only survivor is a 13 year-old girl named Bahia Bakari, who was apparently ejected from the plane and landed in the water, where she held onto debris until she was rescued.

There are two stories that have dominated the coverage of this tragedy. The first is Bakari's survival. Many Americans, including the Quarterback, first learned about the crash from news reports with headlines like "Rescuers Find Child Alive in Wreckage of Airliner Crash." The second is the poor maintenace record of Yemenia Airways and of this plane in general. Apparently the European Union had flagged this particular jet as having maintenance problems, but Yemenia Airways had flown planes in better condition into the EU ever since. On this flight, most passengers boarded in Paris and then switched planes in Yemen.

Certainly both of these stories are newsworthy. But it is notable that the kinds of stories we saw after the Air France crash off the coast of Brazil last month are almost completely absent. We don't know about the engaged couple, the European tourists, and the brilliant scientists who were on board the Yemenia Airways flight. We know about Bakari, but probably we don't remember her name.

In the humble opinion of the Quarterback, the two dominant stories and the absence of the other kind are all attributable to a single, understandable human reaction to tragedy, but one that has a very sinister side to it. As my readers know, we like to assign blame after a traumatic incident. If something can be blamed, it can be controlled.

But this crash offers Americans and to some extent Europeans something even better. It offers us the opportunity to completely detach from identifying with the victims. We white Americans can look at this situation and say, "Look, these people are nothing like us, they were on an airplane that we would not board on an airline that we would not fly. This could not happen in our world." We can easily convince ourselves that this cannot happen to us and people we think of as being like us. And make no mistake about it, when we say "these people are nothing like us" what we mean is that these people are black.

Which brings us back to Bahia Bakari. We love the fact that she is alive. It allows us to tell ourselves that even if something like this could happen to us, it's ok because we could survive. We all, on some level, believe that we are the one lucky one. But unlike if Bakari's name were Jane Johnson and she hailed from Nebraska, we don't want to look too closely. We don't want to know her name or her family background or why she was going to the Comoros Islands, because we'd rather not put ourselves on that plane with her, and we can avoid doing that because, well, she's nothing like us.

Avoiding identifying with the event and its victims is a healthy psychological defense mechanism. It certainly would not be helpful for everyone to personalize this story to the point of their own traumatization, and imagine in vivid detail the experience of being on a crashing plane. The Quarterback is not asking for that. But it might behoove us to be a little self-reflective about why, in this case, detachment is so particularly easy for us to do.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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