Civil war has ravaged Syria for more than 4 years. In that time, almost a quarter million people have been killed (in documented deaths alone), at least 7.6 million civilians have been displaced from their homes and remain in Syria, and nearly 4 million refugees have left their country in search of peace and security. Estimates are that at least half of the refugees are children.
For much of these last four years, the international community has hardly taken notice of the conflict or chaos, to say nothing of working toward consensus on what ought to be done for the growing number of people forced to flee for their lives because of this inaction. Although the U.N. made an appeal for $8.4 billion in aid to address this crisis at the end of 2014, there was not enough political will to fund even half this amount.
This past spring, @HowManySyrians tweeted the names of those who have died. It took them 40 days to get through the list on Twitter and 5 days to read through all the names in front of the White House. Since then, more than 2,500 people have died fleeing Syria. Most have drowned at sea, but in August, 71 refugees suffocated to death in the back of a truck in Austria. Among them were 8 women and 4 children, including an infant.
But on the second day in September in 2015, the world finally woke up.
A picture of the lifeless body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi lying face down on a beach in Turkey went viral. And then, so did the story of how Alan, along with his five-year-old brother Galip and their mother Rehanna, drowned while trying to escape the spreading violence spawned by ISIS.
Liz Sly, covering the war in Syria for the Washington Post, was among the first to share the image. Soon Nadim Houry and Peter Bouckaert, both of Human Rights Watch, did the same, as did David Miliband, the president of the International Rescue Committee. The Turkish hashtag #KiyayaVuranInsanlik, or “Humanity Washed Up Ashore,” quickly started to trend on Twitter.
Almost immediately, a debate started about whether it was tasteful to publish such a photo. Some protested making precious little Alan into a symbol or claimed that sharing his image was too offensive for the public or considered it succumbing to voyeurism. Others argued that to edit out this image would be to hide the truth. The German paper Bild removed all images from its 8 September 2015 print edition and website in response to complaints about publishing the picture of Alan lying on the beach with the statement: “The world must see the truth in order to change.”
Even more importantly, however, as Alan’s image and story spread (as recounted by his grieving father, Abdullah), so did awareness and action. Even as some political leaders stalled, millions of citizens came forward to donate their money, goods, or time to the cause of Syrian refugees. Charities Aid Foundation recently reported that 1 in 3 Britons have participated in these relief efforts, with a third of those attributing their motivation to the image of Alan Kurdi. More than 380,000 Britons have signed a petition to ask PM David Cameron to take action to help resettle Syrian refugees.
The New York Times recently reported that U.S. donations to UNICEF skyrocketed after the picture of Alan Kurdi was circulated on social media (sending donations up 636%), and Save the Children reported a sizable surge in support from the US, as well.
Slowly, leaders from the EU and US have followed the lead of a public now moved with such compassion. The United States recently announced it would add $419 million in humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees on top of the previously-committed $4 billion. Secretary of State John Kerry announced plans to increase the number of admitted Syrian refugees by at least 10,000, with the long-term goal of taking in more than 100,000 Middle Eastern refugees by 2017. And in late September, the EU approved a plan to resettle 120,000 refugees across its 28 member states, overriding strong opposition from four Eastern European countries (including, notably, Hungary, which is now building a fence to protect its borders).
All of this has transpired in just weeks after more than four years of very little organized action.
For this reason, Alan Kurdi can be considered a martyr. Technically, according to Church tradition, martyrdom cannot be declared unless the victim was targeted out of hatred for the Church and refused to renounce his or her faith. But the word “martyr” comes from the word “witness,” and in this way, Alan Kurdi serves as a witness of the horrors of the war in Syria and the terror inflicted upon innocent lives. He also serves as a witness to the indifference and inaction of the international community. As Peter Bouckaert, Director of Emergencies for HRW, explained his decision to share the picture of Alan Kurdi, “Some say the picture is too offensive to share … But what I find offensive is that drowned children are washing up on our shorelines, when more could have been done to prevent their deaths.”
As it turns out, science explains why the image of Alan Kurdi elicited such a strong response, even though photographers and journalists have published hundreds of photographs that document the last four years of the brutal war in Syria and its impact on civilians.
Empathy responds to an “identifiable victim.” As psychologists Tehila Kogut and Ilana Ritov have demonstrated in studies over the last ten years, people are more inclined to feel empathy and compassion for (and also donate more money to) single victims rather than to groups of victims. As psychologist Paul Slovic explains, “Our capacity to feel sympathy for people in need is limited, leading to compassion fatigue, apathy, and inaction.” It is easier for us to imagine the distress of a single person, whereas maintaining this sympathy or empathy soon becomes daunting if not completely overwhelming when we are exposed to crowds of people in need.
Empathy is also parochial; it can be tempered by how one perceives those of a different race, nationality, or belief. In short, the picture of Alan Kurdi went viral – and elicited such a visceral response – because so many people could imagine little Alan as their own son.
Undoubtedly, the 700 who were killed and 900 who were injured in the recent stampede in Mecca during the Hajj will not receive the same outpouring of care or concern. Too many victims. Too different from us. The same goes for the 30,000 children who die every day from mostly preventable causes (like diarrhea or malaria, hunger or lack of access to potable water).
Since the start of his pontificate, Pope Francis has been combating apathy in the face of the daily suffering of others, whether from hunger, illness, or violence. This past year, he urged Catholics to give up indifference for Lent, and he has announced that the theme of his 2016 World Day of Peace Statement will focus on overcoming indifference. As the official press release explains, “Indifference in regard to the scourges of our time is one of the fundamental causes of the lack of peace. Today, indifference is often linked to various forms of individualism which cause isolation, ignorance, selfishness, and therefore, lack of interest and commitment. Increase of information does not mean per se an increase of attention to the problems, if it is not accompanied by solidarity-based openness of conscience.” Cultivating empathy is surely one meaningful way to overcome indifference. But how is it possible to try to empathize with the millions of children whose lives are at risk of the same fate as Alan’s?
When Pope Francis addressed Congress during his visit to the US, he highlighted the need to respond to the refugee crisis by saying, “We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just, and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome.”
Pope Francis is reminding us that refugees are not mere numbers, staggering though the figures may be. By calling us to “see the face” of those in need, Pope Francis is humanizing those we too easily consider “other”: the refugee, the immigrant, the poor.
Ironically, the picture of Alan Kurdi grabbed our attention even without being able to see his face. Moreover, given the volume and velocity of images presented to us through digital technology and social media, it is remarkable that this picture outlasted the sensationalized 24-hour news cycle. It speaks to the potency of empathy that concern for Alan sparked action to relieve the suffering of other refugees like him, resisting the trend of “slacktivisim” that yields little beyond “likes,” “favorites,” or “shares” on social media.
Yet even as social theorist Jeremy Rifkin has called for us to build “global empathic consciousness,” little Alan Kurdi is a witness to the truth that empathy is a necessary but insufficient ingredient for justice. After all, had the international community taken seriously the principle of the Responsibility to Protect that was adopted ten years ago, the UN Security Council could have authorized the kind of intervention that would have saved thousands of lives and likely helped to obviate the current refugee crisis.
Moreover, we are already beginning to see another limit of empathy: it can be fickle and finite. Now, just one month after Alan’s picture raced around the world, American concern has quickly cooled. According to one recent poll, 49% of registered voters do not want the U.S. government to admit any refugees from Syria or the Middle East. Another poll has that figure at 53% (of Americans in opposition), including 40% of Democrats and 71% of Republicans. In addition, 58% of all respondents claim that the refugees would pose a threat to national security. These numbers exist despite numerous efforts to humanize the men, women, and children fleeing for their lives (like this campaign by Humans of New York) and several noteworthy leaders calling for an end to this xenophobia and for greater generosity (as Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright did earlier this week).
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has pointed out that in the entirety of the Hebrew Scriptures, the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” is repeated twice, but the command to love the stranger, the widow, and the orphan – the most vulnerable individuals, who were stripped of any status or protection – is repeated no less than 36 times. This is the most-repeated phrase in our Sacred Scriptures, and yet so many hardened hearts remain.
Where empathy or love fails, perhaps talk about the interdependent relationship between rights and responsibilities might prevail. From a wholly secular angle, Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has a right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” Rights are worthless unless individuals and nations deliver on their responsibilities to protect and advance these rights.
In the tradition of Catholic social thought, the dignity of every human person implies certain rights, which, in turn correlate to the exercise of specific duties to oneself as well as others (see, for example, Pacem in Terris, no. 44). Taken together, these rights and responsibilities apply to the entire human family and help unite its members to discover a “sense of international solidarity, an ever clearer awareness of the responsibility of experts to aid men and even protect them, the desire to make the conditions of life more favorable for all” (Gaudium et Spes, no. 57). Pope Francis explains how solidarity differs from the parochial tendency of empathy that prefers those who are like us when he notes, “In the present condition of global society, where injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable, the principle of the common good immediately becomes, logically and inevitably, a summons to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters” (Laudato Si’, no. 158).
In other words, whereas empathy might be a spontaneous feeling for a particular victim, the vision of CST calls for respect for the rights of all, expressed in the exercise of duties that foster mutuality and interdependence, instead of unilateral episodes of charity or other acts of generosity.
Alan Kurdi died a martyr, a witness to our inability to recognize the dignity and rights of refugees; his tragic death is an indictment of our reluctance to act on our duties to realize an inclusive solidarity that reaches beyond national borders. Let us hope that we can remember his witness so that his death might not have been in vain.