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The power to shock

CN; contains discussion of child death and suffering.

My Twitter timeline is noisy this morning with those who think they have to protest about the sharing of pictures of a dead Syrian refugee, a child, alone and drowned on a beach, and those who think I need to see  a picture of a dead Syrian refugee, a child, alone and drowned on a beach, to understand the crisis we face in Syria, and elsewhere in the world.

The tabloid press, all the press, have long used pictures to shock as a component of news coverage. My mother and father argued over whether I should have been allowed to see the 1970s equivalent of this picture, just as they argued over whether we children should be allowed to see the eharse that came to carry away a neighbour. You could not close the curtains to a picture on the front page of the Daily Mirror in quite the same way though.  It was a photograph of a Vietnamese child, a girl, her skin on fire after US aircraft napalmed her village, running down the road, screaming. You could see, even in low res monochrome, the pain, the fear, the anguish, the horror, and the mind numbing atrocity that was civilized men remotely torturing civilians in pursuit of a war they could not win.

That picture was my personal Guernica, and remembering it now, my eyes are full of tears.

The idea that we can pass by on the other side, averting our eyes, as if we are not accountable for the things that we choose not to see, has never been tenable. To paraphrase John Donne, by considering the dangers faced by others, we understand better the dangers we face. The danger that we become so hardened to the suffering of others is that we, in turn, will find no-one to stand with us when we suffer. Donne, of course, beloved for his language, was a christian who believed that our sufferings could bring us closer to God. I know nothing of that, but I do know that if we turn our heads away from the suffering of others we come another step closer to evil, not the personified caricature evil of the devil and all his works, but the creeping atomized evil of a society where will no-one will offer us a hand when we fall, but will instead take all the steps necessary to pass by on the other side of the road.

The same logic that says we cannot afford to accommodate refugees from Syria says we cannot afford a National Health Service or life saving drugs for cancer sufferers. In other news, a house in London is up for sale for £250million pounds; its ownership is concealed behind a company in the British Virgin Islands so that the owners can avoid paying stamp duty or taxes on the profits they make from the house.

I have some sympathy with those who say that they do not need to see that picture, that Syrian child, alone on that beach, to understand the depth and reality of the suffering that is at the heart of the refugee crisis. My problem is this. When members of my family were dying, not so many years ago, I did not look away. I sat by the bedside, talking, holding hands, remembering the person and sharing their suffering, not flinching from the waxpaper thinness of their skin or the way the cough, the convulsing death rattle cough shook their spine like a bronchial tsunami. I was always conscious of the last lines of Evans, by R S Thomas

It was the dark
Silting the veins of that sick man
I left stranded upon the vast
And lonely shore of his bleak bed.

That Syrian child, stranded on the vast and lonely shores of our continent, as much deserves my unflinching gaze, my unconditional love, as the parent who left me behind to try to be, as they were, an activist for a better, more kindly world, where the tolling of the bell is a call to action, not a reason to close the curtains in case the children be scarred by the sight of the hearse.
While we have plenty, while we have empty offices and second homes and houses bigger than football pitches owned by tax avoiding offshore companies, we also have room for the dispossessed, the frightened, the scared, the scarred and the exiles. If we choose to look away, we will become exiles from ourselves, abandoning humanity for the cold, sterile comfort of our possessions.


One comment on “The power to shock

  1. Jane
    September 3, 2015

    Beautifully said.


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This entry was posted on September 3, 2015 by in Uncategorized.

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