A PHOTO of a Syrian toddler washed up dead on a beach in Turkey made news headlines around the world this past 48 hours.
The child was Aylan Kurdi and he was three years old. He drowned in the Mediterranean Sea along with his five-year-old brother Galip and mother Rihan.
Much of the world’s media has led with the image of Aylan lying lifeless on the shores of Bodrum in southwest Turkey. Meanwhile, social media users have also shared images of Aylan and his brother when they were alive, smiling and playing together.
They were real people just like you and me.
The boys were on one of two boats that departed Bodrum early on Wednesday and were headed for the Greek island of Kos. Both boats sank shortly after leaving the Turkish coast.
Twelve bodies have been recovered from the sea, including those of five children. Nine people survived and two are still missing, presumed drowned.
The family, Kurds from Kobane in northern Syria, fled their homes after the Islamic State group ISIS besieged their town earlier this year.
The United Nations has reported that at least 230,000 people have been killed in Syria’s brutal civil war, although the actual toll is thought to be much higher. More than 6.5 million people out of a population of 22 million have also been displaced by the conflict.
Thousands of people have died trying to reach Europe this year, with many fleeing conflict in the Middle East and North Africa. On 14 September European Union ministers will hold an emergency meeting to discuss solutions to the largest refugee crisis facing the continent since World War II.
Yet that is only half of the story. The scandal of the refugee crisis has been going on for more than two years.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been fleeing the brutality that has swept across the Middle East and North Africa. Thousands have drowned making the dangerous journey through the Mediterranean Sea and into Europe.
The people who have avoided Aylan’s fate and made it to the mainland have found themselves stuffed into rotting detention camps as the EU fruitlessly debates about what is to be done with them.
Their default mode up till now has mostly been one of regretful impotence at best.
It is a desperate, appalling situation. It’s also one that has been covered relentlessly by newspaper, radio and TV journalists. Now the response to the pictures of Aylan may speak to the effectiveness of journalism. The fact that none of the thousands of videos, photos and articles that came before those pictures provoked a similar reaction speaks to the limits of that effectiveness.
It should not have taken these pictures to wake people up, though it’s understandable that the image of a child’s dead body is able to cut through in ways other images might not have.
We don’t want to live in a world where we need such abject horror thrust in our faces before we pay any attention at all. The sad fact, however, is that we do.
Now instead of calling these people “migrants” with sickening collective terms such as “swarm” or “plague” the world’s media is at last waking up to them as desperate refugees,
The story behind the gut-seizing, heart-shattering pictures of drowned children on Mediterranean beaches is not a complex one.
The cause of these children’s deaths has a name: Western imperialism. And their killers have names and addresses.
One of those names is Barack Obama. His administrations’ imperial machinations in Libya and Syria are the direct cause of the unforgivable deaths of these children.
And as before, in Iraq, the US led assault has been backed by British lap-dog prime ministers Tony Blair and David Cameron.
In short, drowned children are the direct consequence of keeping the lights on across the capitalist West.
It fronts a mind-set that accepts Western narratives and a greed for oil, a scapegoating of an entire religion (Islam), and a paranoia over the continued power of Russia.
The current refugee exodus exists due to 800 years of our collective history as a colonial and Christian power, hell-bent on exporting our values, religion and control on other nations.
Britain, France, Spain, Belgium, Holland and Portugal have been colonialists since the so-called Holy Crusades to Jerusalem in the 13th century, the colonial exploitation of the Americas in the 16th and 17th centuries, to the dissection of Africa, South America and Asia in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Our imperialist ancestors conquered peaceful countries, imposed western values and Christianity upon them, plundered their treasures and resources, murdered millions and took millions more into slavery.
And over the past 100 years we have been joined by our ‘allies’ the USA, which since the end of World War 2 has bombed: China 1945-46, Korea 1950-53, China 1950-53, Guatemala 1954, Indonesia 1958, Cuba 1959-60, Guatemala 1960, Belgian Congo 1964, Guatemala 1964, Dominican Republic 1965-66, Peru 1965, Laos 1964-73, Vietnam 1961-73, Cambodia 1969-70, Guatemala 1967-69, Lebanon 1982-84, Grenada 1983-84, Libya 1986, El Salvador 1981-92, Nicaragua 1981-90, Iran 1987-88, Libya 1989, Panama 1989-90, Iraq 1991, Kuwait 1991, Somalia 1992-94, Bosnia 1995, Iran 1998, Sudan 1998, Afghanistan 1998, Yugoslavia – Serbia 1999, Afghanistan 2001, Iraq 2003 and Libya 2011.
And more recently we have sat back and watched as the US trained and armed insurgents (including ISIS) against Assad’s ruthless Syrian regime while at the same time allowed Zionist Israel to become a nuclear state and murder thousands of innocent Palestinian civilians in its own backyard.
Our nations have sown war and hatred all over the world – now there is a heavy harvest.
But the general public is waking up. Grassroots campaigns all over Europe should shame our own right wing Tory government, whose policy is little more than a noxious and combustible mix of inertia and paranoia.
As David Miliband pointed out, our country was instrumental in creating the convention that established legal rights for refugees. Does our self-image matter?
Well, it might do when others are making us look mean-spirited. Germany is; Greece is.
The tide washes in, the tide washes out. The compassion fatigue said to have set in when we were shown images of famine is now a permanent motion sickness. Just keep staring straight ahead, don’t look too hard, or you may see something other than detritus out at sea, or sleeping rough, or crowded into stations. You might see a child’s face that reminds you of a child you know. And you may indeed say that someone, somewhere, should do something, but not us.
Or you may, as some are doing, make a small gesture.
Your offering will not cut through the impossible statistics nor stem the tide of loathing disguised as logic. It will not stop the panic on every border or the ongoing migration of so many displaced people. It will not stop the posturing of the political class. It will simply connect you to what it is to be human.
And right now, that feels almost like hope.
A string of politicians and charities have urged David Cameron to do more to improve the desperate plight of those fleeing war-torn countries.
Thousands have signed a petition calling on the Government to ensure the UK works with other European Union countries to set and welcome a quota of refugees.
But if we are honest we need a sea change in the way Western governments think, believe and act.
It may take some time, but the seeds of a real political revolution are being sown.
The period between 1789 and 1850 saw populist revolutions from the gates of the Bastille in France to the “Rome of the People” of Giuseppe Garibaldi and the beginnings of a reunification of Bismarck’s greater Germany. Kings and Queens were displaced and the political face of Europe changed forever.
Today, after decades of capitalist right wing governments, who feed on the cash of arms trading and warfare while people die waiting for welfare at home, the change is coming.
It has already happened in Greece and Scotland where the people’s voice was heard at the ballot box. Now Jeremy Corbyn offers real hope for a new tomorrow in the UK and Bernie Sanders provides a new way forward in the US presidential race.
There is hope…. real hope.
As Bob Dylan once wrote:
“Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’”