In an old song, Who by fire, Leonard Cohen lists all the different ways to die. I’ve always thought that “by water” was by far the worst one (which is part of the reason I don’t love swimming in the sea).
The picture of the drowned Syrian boy that has become the symbol of the summer 2015 migrant crisis, and the debate that followed (showing it or not showing… but in the end, let’s just flood social media with it) got me thinking. I remember that in a book that my primary school teacher had made me read, the lives of two boys who are friends in Nazi Germany take two very different paths during the war. At the end of the book the Aryan boy leaves the bomb shelter he has been hiding in during one of the last bombings of Berlin and finds his Jewish friend “seemingly sleeping”. He overcomes the clashes they’ve had in the past to run to his friend, wake him up and run away from falling buildings, but he finds him dead.
The Syrian boy reminded me of Friedrik, the Jewish boy from the book: he looks like any toddler who falls asleep on the beach, in the weird positions only children can fall asleep in. The Syrian boy, his brother, their father who now wants to bring them back to Kobane, they are a symbol. They are not more deserving than anybody else, what infuriates me is that over the past summer thousands of people, and children, have died in the small pool that is the Mediterranean, and up to a week ago we had had the decency to respect the dead.
Then something happened, some wanted a stronger image, some more coverage, some wanted to portray ISIS as the one and only killer of the boy – and of the one who preceded and followed- and the picture went viral.
Now my personal consideration is: the picture went viral because people started sharing it, that is the power of social media: each one of us is a small amplifier, every one has equal power and only together we decide what “trends” and what doesn’t.
Unfortunately, over the years and working in underprivileged contexts and developing countries, I have seen a fair number of dead children, and in my experience… it gets easier. As horrid as it is to say, the first time you vomit, the second you cry, the third keeps you awake at night, but by the fifteenth you think “fuck, I wish we could have done something for this one”.
And the picture of the drowned Syrian boy is only a step towards acceptance. I’m not gonna start a rant here over whether or not we should be taking migrants into our own countries, I personally think we should and that it’s revolting that we are literally bouncing them from one place to another, have them rot to death in trucks or camp in stations on the border with Europe, but that’s a personal point of view. But what I am really afraid of is that we, as end users, are shaping the media according to a disgusted morbidity that pushes us to watch through the cracks between our fingers. We have a horror movie playing in front of us and what we don’t understand is that we could stop it anytime we wanted, but we don’t want to.
It is not my intention to have powerful images shut down for fear of upsetting people, but my biggest concern is that by sharing images (and not doing anything about the root causes) we are getting anesthetized and playing the game: the biggest the initial shock the more people get used to it and move on.
And in the meantime people, parents, risk their lives and those of the children at sea, because no matter how dangerous the sea is, it’s still safer than their homes.