Crisis fatigue inures us to tragedy

Friday 20/11/2015
New normal

For years, refugees climbed into unseawor­thy vessels or trekked across near-impossible terrain, risking their lives to escape violence or hopelessness only to run into locked doors. Then the picture of Aylan Kurdi, lying dead on a lonely beach, became the searing image that opened borders.
The picture of the 3-year-old boy’s body was heart-rending. Subsequent photos of Aylan being carefully carried away by a police officer were nearly as powerful.
It wasn’t long after that early September gruesome discovery that countries around the world — at least for a time — opened their doors to refugees. Many leaders who responded to the refugee crisis said it was Aylan’s image that swayed them.
But how did that death turn those locks? After years of pictures of dozens of people crowded into rickety boats, hearing tales of hun­dreds drowning or thousands being turned away at borders, how did one 3-year-old boy cause a break­through?
It is because we knew that child. Oh, we didn’t know Aylan, per se, but we all have seen toddlers — per­haps clad in red shirt, blue shorts and sneakers — laughing and play­ing as all children should. It’s a very happy thought. But this boy was alone and dead. That image sears into the mind.
This brought Aylan’s death home. It put a single face on a crisis that affects millions. This forced the world to see refugees as people.
This is also the raison d’être for journalism, a profession, as at­tributed to Finley Peter Dunne, that should “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”. Here was a chance to live that cause. Aylan could no longer be made comfort­able but his fate could aid others who are afflicted.
There had to be a sickening feel­ing upon coming upon the bodies of Aylan and the others who died. More than a dozen people, includ­ing Aylan’s mother and brother, drowned when their overloaded boat capsized about five minutes after leaving shore in an attempt to reach a Greek island and a safe haven away from the Syrian war.
Alyan’s body had been pulled from the water by the time Dogan News Agency photographer Nilufer Demir arrived but was still on the beach near the waterline. Demir was put in an ethical quandary: Aylan was one of the “afflicted” but she could not help him and there is always a thought to respect the privacy of the dead. However, his image could help the plight of countless others.
“There was nothing left to do for him. There was nothing left to bring him back to life,” Demir told CNN Turk. “There was nothing to do except take his photograph. And that is exactly what I did.”
And then, expressing the most important aspect of journalism, she said: “I thought, ‘This is the only way I can express the scream of his silent body.’”
The photo was Aylan’s scream for help for those trying to escape the terror of the years-long fighting in Syria or deprivation in other parts of the Middle East and North Africa.
One drawback of the 24-hour news cycle and the plethora of ways 21st-century technology al­lows for the sharing of information with light-speed immediacy is the sheer amount of words and images available. There is so much mate­rial that the world is becoming in­ured to scenes of hordes of people in tragic situations. We suffer from crisis fatigue.
There are so many in dire need that the masses become faceless. It’s relatively easy to dehumanise people when their features are hard to make out in a crowd of hundreds or thousands.
Then comes the picture of a single boy and the crisis is given a face. Humanity returns and people are driven to action.
Aylan Kurdi represents thou­sands of people who have died trying to escape violence of the Syrian war. To let his death go un­noticed and rendered unimportant is unconscionable, just as it is to ignore the continuing plight of the millions still affected by the war his family was trying to escape.