The image that shocked our collective conscience: A child refugee's death & the West's moral responsibility

It shouldn't have taken the drowning of child to lay bare the depth of the refugee crisis. For too many, it did

Published September 3, 2015 7:58PM (EDT)

By now, you have perhaps looked at, and been horrified by, the pictures of the Syrian child lying dead on a Turkish beach. They have rocketed around the world, landing on the front pages of many newspapers and provoking the kinds of reactions we often see when such tragedies cross our path. The boy, whose name was Aylan Kurdi, has become a potent symbol of the refugee crisis currently spiraling out of control in Europe. Almost immediately after images of his corpse hit the internet, European leaders were pledging to do more to deal with the situation. All in all, the last day has been a testament to the power of photojournalism to shock the conscience.

Yet that is only half of the story. The scandal of the refugee crisis has been going on for many months. Hundreds of thousands of people have been fleeing the brutality that has swept across the Middle East and North Africa. Thousands have drowned making the dangerous journey through the Mediterranean Sea and into Europe. Aylan was one of those; he was on a boat headed to Greece that capsized. The people who have avoided his fate and made it to Europe have found themselves stuffed into rotting detention camps as the EU fruitlessly debates about what is to be done with them. Their default mode up till now has mostly been one of regretful impotence at best. It is a desperate, appalling situation. It's also one that has been covered relentlessly by journalists.

The response to the pictures of Aylan may speak to the effectiveness of journalism. The fact that none of the thousands of videos, photos and articles that came before those pictures provoked a similar reaction speaks to the limits of that effectiveness.

It should not have taken these pictures to wake people up, though it's understandable that the image of a child's dead body is able to cut through in ways other images might not have. We don't want to live in a world where we need such abject horror thrust in our faces before we pay any attention at all. The sad fact, however, is that we do.

The outpouring of sympathy after Aylan's death has also exposed the deep hypocrisy of many news outlets. British newspapers especially have a lot of nerve splashing Aylan's picture on their front pages. For months, those same papers have been fervidly denouncing the attempt of a relatively tiny group of refugees trying to enter the UK through the Channel Tunnel with France. A columnist for The Sun called the people drowning in boats on the Mediterranean "cockroaches." Prime Minister David Cameron, whose government has taken a miniscule number of refugees, has responded by taking his rhetoric to ugly lows, warning of a "swarm" of immigrants overrunning the country. For these same institutions to self-righteously mourn for Aylan is beneath contempt.

I've focused mostly on Europe because it's likely that a great many Americans had no idea such tragedies were occurring. "Drowned Syrian refugee reveals Europe's migration crisis," the New York Daily News tweeted on Thursday, as though the crisis was something new. The Daily News was one of relatively few American titles to lead with pictures of Aylan. Almost all of Europe's top papers, on the other hand, did.

Americans are not as directly affected by this crisis as our European counterparts, but we have just as much of a responsibility to focus on it, since it is a crisis largely of our making. Like an incompetent doctor causing one organ after another to fail, the US has systematically destabilized the entire Middle East piece by piece over the past 15 years. From Afghanistan to Iraq to Libya, America and its allies have ripped the region apart and left only misery in its wake. When the victims of our disasters then flee the horror we've helped create, the least we can do is pause to acknowledge their existence for more than a single day.

By Jack Mirkinson

Jack Mirkinson is a writer living in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @jackmirkinson.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Aylan Kurdi European Refugee Crisis Human Rights Media Criticism Refugees Syrian Refugees