“What seems to us more important, more painful, and more unendurable is really not what is more important, more painful and more unendurable, but merely that which is closer to home. Everything distant which for all its moans and muffled cries, its ruined lives and millions of victims, that does not threaten to come rolling up to our threshold today, we consider endurable and of tolerable dimensions.”
– Alexander Solzhenitsyn
I cannot get the picture out of my mind.
He was just a little 3-year-old boy and the picture shows his lifeless body lying facedown, curled up on a Turkish beach. He was dressed in cute clothes and sneakers. His posture in death was exactly the same as the posture of my children at his age in life. He looked as if he was just sleeping peacefully at that place where the waves and his life ended.
His name was Aylan Kurdi, and he drowned along with his mother, brother and others trying to escape the carnage in Syria in a boat that was too small for the sea. I want you to join me in anger and sorrow in praying for his soul and for our shared belief that although his body has come to permanent rest, his soul might continue its journey to a place where it can once again be sheltered in his mother’s arms.
The only reason we even know Aylan’s name is because of the picture. There have been no pictures of the quarter of a million other victims of the Syrian genocide like Aylan who have been murdered in Syria. The picture is the reason why the whole world now knows Aylan’s name.
Yet the picture is a huge problem. There is an old slogan among journalists, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Stories of death and destruction usually push stories of courage and compassion off the front pages and the top of the newscasts (the story of the three heroes overpowering a potential terrorist on the French train being a welcome recent exception). It is the reason why traffic slows down even on the other side of the road when passing a crash scene. It is also why almost all of our blockbuster movies are blood-soaked. We seem to have a perverse attraction to blood and gore.
However, what the picture of Aylan brought into focus for me is that despite the “if it bleeds, it leads” impulse, we really don’t actually see much blood in the news. The shot is always cut short of the real blood. The pictures we see are usually of the scene outside the blood. I understand this instinct. Editors don’t want to send their viewers or readers running to vomit in the bathroom, or to have children and adults traumatized by gruesome pictures of corpses. I can’t blame them for trying to protect us from the savagery of our world, and it is true that such explicit pictures of death are almost pornographic in their addictiveness.
However, the journalistic reticence to focus an unflinching lens on the horrors of our times has deprived us of the moral shock necessary to fight evil. There is a reason why a picture is worth a thousand words, and by shielding us from the reality of suffering and death the way only a picture can, we are helped to move on when moving on is precisely the wrong thing to do.
The picture of a dead toddler looking as if he was just asleep on the sand is absolutely crushing, but necessary. That almost unreal picture made Aylan’s life and death real, and made the horrible suffering of the Syrian people real in a way that no words ever can. It connects his life and his innocence to the lives of our children and their own innocence in a way that helps us identify with the victims as real human beings.
The New York Times published an editorial about its agonized decision to publish the picture of Aylan, and I am grateful for that decision. We needed to know – and see – what happened to Aylan.
I choose to believe that Germany’s change of heart to open its gates to other refugees occurred because Chancellor Angela Merkel, who’s a mother, saw that picture of Aylan.
May his soul rest in peace.