We see their faces, caked in blood and dust and history. We see their bodies lying on sandy beaches, waves seeming to peacefully lap at the shore. We see their bodies carried from bombed out buildings. We see them clutching tattered blankets or stuffed animals as they cry for their mothers or fathers.
We see them, over and over again, and we say, 'How terrible' or 'How awful' or 'That poor child.'
How can you not see those tiny, vulnerable bodies hurt or dead and not feel a deep sorrow and anger?
The problem lies in what we do with that sorrow or anger. It's often nothing.
Research has long shown that media cannot make you do anything. It can influence attitudes and opinions, but it's not going to make you eat healthy or get more sleep or donate money to a charity that will help children like those we see on the news.
The most many do is change a social media avatar or claim to be praying for the country the child came from. Both things are forms of communication that are important, but they're never enough and they will never be enough. Sure, they help raise awareness, but aren't most of us aware of the tragedies unfolding before our eyes?
Scholar Birgitta Höijer has written about how this type of mediated witnessing helps produce two things -- global compassion and indifference. She notes that 'in international politics as well as in the media, many victims never qualify as worthy victims.' Children, women, and the elderly are often framed as 'worthy victims' -- victims who are worthy of our sorrow. Worthy of our compassion.
Höijer also points out the compassion we feel toward victims such as Aylan Kurdi, the young refugee child whose body was photographed on a beach last year, and for Omran Daqneesh, the Syrian boy who was pictured covered in grime in an ambulance, is often dependent upon those visual representations.
This is spurred, in part, by what Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites suggested is a desire of the audience to 'see themselves' in images. That's why the concept of the worthy, or ideal, victim can be so important -- we were all once children, or have children; we all have elderly people in our lives we love. Ideal victims can form a bridge between the near and the far. Barbie Zelizer as well as Paul Frosh and Amit Pinchevski have suggested this bridging helps us feel closer to victims. Helps us feel, too, as though we better understand the violence which causes such suffering.
That bridging, though important, still does not resolve the lack of action such images produce. (Although it's being reported that the image of Omran Daqneesh has so disturbed Russia that the nation is looking to broker a 48-hour ceasefire in Syria.) What are we, collectively, to do with all this suffering? All this sorrow? Particularly as it pertains to victims who are physically so far away from us?
Every time I see a photo of a new Aylan or a new Omran I feel a deep nausea. It is fueled partly by the sorrow I feel at the sight of such suffering, but also by the knowledge that, so far, such suffering has meant little.
Aylan Kurdi's death seemed to open up the doors of Europe to refugees fleeing violence in MENA, but how quickly his death was forgotten as a journalist kicked a refugee and as refugee shelters were set on fire. Now, politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are once again framing refugees as, at times, less than human and certainly as not deserving of our compassion.
The image of 5-year-old Omran sitting caked in dirt and dust is not something I'll soon forget. He, like Aylan, are our Ghosts of Conflicts Present -- carrying condemnation and judgement in their little bodies.
How many more? How many more until we go completely numb and the action we choose is to simply avert our eyes and refuse to see?
That's my fear. That our compassion will turn into indifference.
In February there were reports that casualties in the Syrian Civil War, the conflict which produced both Aylan and Omran, had reached 470,000. So many of them children. So many of them unseen.
How many more?
I feel anger over the sight of little Omran sitting alone in the back of an ambulance. But I feel anger, as well, over the fact that his suffering, and the suffering of so many others, has meant so little.
Elie Wiesel famously said, 'The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference.'
Birgitta Höijer suggested the opposite of global compassion is also indifference.
I often find myself paralyzed as I try to figure out how to leverage the one in order to avoid the other.
And, then, what next? How many more victims, how many more Aylans or Omrans before we finally turn our compassion into action? How many more before someone who changes an avatar decides to give to a relief organization? How many more before someone using a hashtag decides to vote? How many more before our collective paralysis is finally overcome?
My fear is that it will be far, far too many.
Each time I see another image, another photo of a dead or suffering child, I think of the painting 'Truth Coming Out of Her Well to Shame Mankind.' I ask myself if tiny Aylan Kurdi's body didn't shame us, if Omran Daqneesh's vacant dust covered stare doesn't shame us into not just feeling but finally doing something with our compassion and with our empathy, then what will?