In Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen's book Development as Freedom, he describes witnessing as a child an event that had a profound effect on him. He was in his family home in Dhaka, Bangladesh when a man who had been stabbed by a religious rival came into the garden screaming for help. It was an era of heightened tensions between Muslims and Hindus, so as a Muslim the man had taken an enormous risk to come into a Hindu area to find work as a day laborer.
He was forced to take such a risk because of his vulnerable economic situation, his "economic unfreedom," his condition of poverty.
I was reminded of this story when noting the juxtaposition of two events that have captured recent news headlines: the 28 Christian Ethiopians who were brutally killed by ISIS members in Libya, and the 700 people who drowned en route from Libya to Italy in their desperate attempt to flee impoverished conditions in their home countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Their overcrowded boat capsized and only a lucky few survived.
The first story attracted the most attention in the United States perhaps because Christian Americans can empathize with the victims, imagining themselves as those victims.
A recent CNN poll found that 68 percent of Americans see ISIS as "a very serious threat." The attacks are portrayed as religiously motivated and that makes us especially fearful.
On the other hand, very few Americans can imagine themselves as economic refugees who would risk their lives to take a dangerously overcrowded boat to an unfamiliar destination.
Despite the different media frames of religious violence and economic tragedy, the two stories are actually closely related and go back to the condition of economic unfreedom that Sen describes. The Ethiopians had left their homeland, traveled across Sudan and into Libya in their quest to seek employment in Europe. Their demise resulted from severely limited economic choices.
The immediate cause of death was religious extremism, but the deep determinant was poverty.
Economic opportunity is the best wall of defense against extremism and against life-threatening decisions.
Better that we address that issue directly than to assume that electric fences, concrete walls and large bodies of water will keep it at bay.