It’s a pretty low-down trick, you might have thought, to use a harrowing photograph of a dead child to advance your political agenda and signal the depths of your compassion.
But almost everyone has been at it over the last couple of days – from the Tory MP for Plymouth to Labour’s temporary Opposition leader Harriet Harman, from the Chief Rabbi on the BBC Radio 4 Today this morning to pretty much all the people you know on Facebook and Twitter.
Fairly typical is these inevitable contributions from Jack Monroe, a political activist.
The 3 year old boy was called Aylan Kurdi. Children are dying. For gods sake this world is for all of us. How dare we not help each other?
— Jack Monroe (@DrJackMonroe) September 3, 2015
CHILDREN ARE DROWNING. Some of you still want to draw imaginary lines round 'your' country because of 'their' birthplace. Fuck the hell off.
— Jack Monroe (@DrJackMonroe) September 3, 2015
In other words: don’t think. Just feel for once in your bloody lives, you miserable insensate bastards!
There are at least two problems with this kind of emotional fascism.
The first is that it stinks of the witch-hunt bully mob. A similar climate prevailed in Britain in the weeks following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales: if you weren’t one of the good, caring people who rushed to Kensington Palace to place a teddy bear/bunch of flowers/mawkish hand-coloured tribute to the martyred saint who was apparently ‘Queen of All our Hearts’, then basically you were probably the kind of person who would have volunteered to become camp commandant at Auschwitz.
So it is with poor little Aylan Kurdi, with whose name and family circumstances we are all now painfully familiar.
No one who has seen that piteous photograph could fail to be moved: the tenderness and sorrow with which the Turkish policeman is cradling the dead child in his arms; Aylan’s bare legs, the flesh not yet pallid, as though he could yet be alive; the battered trainers with their velcro fastenings, such as we’ve all seen small children – including perhaps our own – toddling cheerfully around on beaches like that one in Bodrum all this summer.
But, of course, an inward shudder of “there but for the grace of God go all our children” is never enough for these commissars of emotional correctness. You have to tweet about it. You have to bully other people into feeling that they have to tweet about it. You have to feel so overwhelmingly strongly about it that it becomes inexcusable not to demand immediate action, because if you don’t then that’s proof positive that really you just don’t give a damn…
Which brings me to my second objection: the politically driven manipulation towards a particular outcome.
The people demanding action now on the basis of the Aylan Kurdi photograph may not all be aware of what they’re doing here. Indeed, most of them probably aren’t: this, after all, is about the circumvention of the rational process with raw emotion, about the heart not the head.
That though is precisely why it’s so dangerous and so counterproductive. In asking us to focus on a particular private tragedy, it demands that we ignore the bigger picture. This is a game that the progressive movement, left-wing radicals and social justice warriors have long been adept at playing in order to advance their dubious agenda and to make their more sober-minded conservative opponents look heartless. But a recipe for sensible policy it is not.
I notice the last time I made this point was just over a year ago, in a piece written at the height of the Israeli incursion into Gaza.
A photograph began circulating of the mutilated corpse of a Palestinian child, allegedly killed by Israeli shelling. I say “allegedly” because, as with all photographs circulated for propaganda purposes by Hamas and its sympathisers, you can never be sure of the circumstances or indeed the location in which they were taken. (From Syria to Iraq there is no current shortage of Middle Eastern dead baby photos). This was “Pallywood productions” in excelsis. It was released with a very specific, cynical and sinister purpose: to focus international outrage against Israel and create a mood of heightened emotion which made it much harder to consider the wider implications of the conflict (eg that Hamas had provoked it by firing the first rockets). In this climate, there was little appetite for stories pointing out Hamas’s brutal attitude towards its own citizens, for example deliberately firing rockets from schools and hospitals and residential apartments in full knowledge that this would invite retaliatory strikes resulting in civilian casualties. Dead baby = Israel evil was the message. It worked.
So, again, it is with poor little Aylan Kurdi.
British Prime Minister David Cameron and other leaders have now very effectively been bludgeoned into the response that the left has long been angling for: the acceptance by western nations of yet more immigrants.
The irony, of course, is that it is precisely the policy option almost guaranteed to create more tragedies like that of Aylan Kurdi and his dead brother and mother. To all those refugees and immigrants seeking – and who can blame them? – a safer, better life within the European Union and beyond, it sends a signal that it is worth taking the risk of fleeing their homelands and risking perilous crossings across the Mediterranean to the apparently welcoming bosom of the free West.
What should we be doing instead?
Perhaps the most sensible answer can be found in this excellent Spectator piece by Paul Collier.
If we have a moral duty (to coin a much-bandied-about phrase) towards the displaced peoples of the Middle East, he argues, it’s to give them a viable future in the lands of their birth. All those people – progressive bleeding hearts and libertarian ‘let-them-all-in’ think tankers alike – who think it’s our job to welcome the entire world across our borders are so wrapped up in their own, selfish, socio-political obsessions that they haven’t really stopped to consider the needs of the people they’re claiming to help. If you are born a Syrian, the best of all possible outcomes you could hope for is not a new, displaced life in an alien country with an alien climate, but one in a peaceful, recovering Syria far removed from the current hellhole.
This may seem an implausible prospect now. But as Collier reminds us, it will eventually happen.
The key fact to grasp about the Syrian conflict is that it will end; conflicts in middle–income countries seldom last more than a decade and this one has already been running for four years. There is an obvious endgame, in which the Syrian army dumps Assad as a liability and leads a broad anti-Isis alliance. Once parts of Syria return to peace, they will face a fairly standard challenge of post-conflict recovery. Post-conflict situations are politically fragile, and rapid economic recovery helps to stabilise them. The smart way to meet the duty to rescue is to incubate that economic recovery now, before the conflict ends.
Indeed. And the way to achieve it is not to allow well-meaning refugee programmes to leech from that country forever its brightest, most energetic and enterprising citizens. Rather, it’s to create a situation where they are ready to return when the time is ripe.
Europe can do that by fostering a Syria–in-exile economy located in Jordan and other neighbouring countries. Working in this economy would restore some dignity to the daily lives of refugees and offer them credible hope of a return to normality. Providing a skilled minority of Syrians with dream lives in Europe is not the answer: it would be detrimental to recovery because once settled in Europe, with their children in schooling, such people would be unlikely to go back to a post-conflict society. In consequence, it would gut Syria of the very people it will most need. It is an intellectually lazy feel-good policy for the bien‑pensant.
There’s a problem with this ingenious solution, of course. In order for it to be implemented, it will require hard, considered, joined-up thinking, not a knee-jerk emotional response.
And unfortunately, by the looks of it, knee-jerk emotional responses are about the only thing of which most of us are capable.