No one wants to find a picture of a dead kid on the front of the morning newspaper. A three-year old boy in shorts and t-shirt face-down in the Turkish shallows, a lanky and surely mortified and forever-changed cop stationed behind him. It’s a horrible image and I wish I’d never seen it. And the first thing I did when I brought the newspaper inside today was put that section where it wasn’t going to be seen by my own kids, especially my seven-year-old daughter, who’s always asking me to explain the news. Who is that, Dad? she’ll say. What are they doing? Why are they sad? There are lots of questions around that breakfast table. I didn’t want to go through that with this image, and I didn’t want her to have to deal with it, either. It’s not helpful to have children live in complete ignorance of the world’s troubles, but there are real limits to their capacity for understanding and this, it seemed to me, would reduce her to tears and quite possibly leave a scar.
But I’m still glad it’s there, that shot of a dead little boy, his right cheek set down softly in the pillowy surf. He could be asleep, couldn’t he, or faking it (because that was my first thought: for fuck’s sake let him be okay). Hell, I walked with my own kids along similar beaches just last month. Not a real care in the world. Was there enough food in the cooler for lunch? That was about the extent of my anxiety.
Yeah, I’m glad it’s there, that grimmest of seaside photographs, because it will surely serve as an almighty slap to all the politicians who’ve been arguing for razor wire fences, and more guards at the train stations and tunnels, those who argue that what we need are more meetings, and insist that the best answer is for these refugees not to get into leaky boats in the first place.
Here’s what’s actually going on. Parents put their kids onto rafts and set off at night for distant and possibly hostile shores because it would be even worse to stay where they are. They are not running because they’ve been seduced, moth-like, by the bright lights of Berlin, or London (good luck getting there!). They are on the run because they want simply to survive, because they want their children to live rather than get blown up by Assad’s military, or starve, in Syria. They are not looking to destabilize Europe, or ruin it. And they won’t. Quite the opposite, I suspect. The moral imperative here is to help them out of the water. These people, one way or another, are all drowning right now. To think otherwise is to ignore all the facts, the photos, the screams and the crying, the stench coming from trucks abandoned at the side of the road.
There is a moment in most crises where the ground shifts, or when a hinge is created around which our understanding and attitudes swing. If this dire, abysmally sad image can force some of the David Camerons and, much worse, the Viktor Orbans of Europe, to speak and act freshly in the coming days, with compassion and a humanist viewpoint, rather than through transparent and reprehensible self-interest, then something positive may come yet from this most recent blood-filled tide.
Since I began writing this, the boy has been identified as Aylan Kurdi. His father says he will take the bodies of his two sons and that of his wife, home to Syria for burial.
The Guardian (theguardian.com) is a good place to go for more perspective and up-to-date reporting on this issue.
The photo at top is an edited Reuters shot.