We had one hell of an emotional response to the photographs of Aylan Kurdi, writes Terry Prone
I DON’T know if they still use candle-snuffers in churches, or even if that’s what they’re called, those pointy metal dunce’s caps sitting on the end of a long pole, that used to be lowered by an altar boy or girl over the tall candles when the mass or other ceremony was ended.
Silently, the pointed metal caps would be lowered and when they were raised back up, the straight small perfect flame would be quenched and replaced by a dark smoke curl like a grey snake. Within a few minutes, even that relic of the light was gone, and it was as if the candles had never been lit.
The equivalent of candle-snuffers operate all day, every day in our heads, preventing most of what we see and what we hear and what we are touched by from staying alight in our long-term memories.
We see, we hear and are touched in short-term memory, and then — soft as a whisper — down comes the snuffer and all that’s left is the bendy smoke signalling that something happened, here, just a short time ago. Something? What was it? Who knows?
We have more to be doing with our time than storing every memory. Our brains are overloaded anyway. What’s that recent trendy acronym for how we feel? That’s right. TATT: We’re ‘tired all the time’. We’re not too tired to have an emotional response to something touching, but we’re too tired to deliver on it.
We had one hell of an emotional response to the photographs of Aylan Kurdi, the tiny tot, face down dead on a beach, or being carried by a uniformed stranger.
Mainstream media preferred the shot of an army man carrying the little cold body, blue sea in the background, the two firmly laced-up black sneakers of the child weighing down the two small slender white legs hanging over the big arm of the man, sand-stained and pathetic.
It was nearly simultaneous, the worldwide publication of the photographs and the quick demands that we be protected from them.
It was surely exploitation of this small child, said the reproving voices, to put his picture — the face down in the sand one — on social media. The shot of the dead body being carried by the officer wasn’t quite so bad, went this line of thought, perhaps because the child was not so obviously the flotsam of humanity.
The shot of the man holding the child carried the subliminal suggestion that the child was being gentled in death as the child had not been gentled in life, that we, as represented by officialdom in another European country, were trying to do the right thing, albeit a bit late, given that the child was dead.
The first distraction from our helplessness in the face of the photograph, was the urgent ethical issue of the possible impropriety of sharing the picture. The second was the call for someone to do something.
Ideally one of the big powers should go to whatever country these people came from and tell them to stop doing whatever they were doing to make people want out. Stuff them back in their genie bottle and stop them upsetting us by drowning in our waters when we didn’t do anything to them to deserve it.
The third distraction surfaced in radio programme texts. They reached into the bag of slimed clichés, did those texts, and came up, inevitably, with “charity begins at home”, that great axiom of the fundamentally ungenerous.
We have thousands of homeless right here, said those who had never done anything much for or evinced any practical concern towards the same thousands of Irish homeless. Funny thing.
The Alice Leahys and the Sr Stans never seem to say “charity begins at home”, perhaps because they believe it begins everywhere and lays the hand of duty on everybody’s shoulder.
“Charity begins at home” is as unintentionally revealing as David Cameron’s comment about “swarms”, and what it reveals is the permanent underpinning of chauvinism; a de-humanising of what we call, in another deadly phrase, “these people”.
A dead toddler may briefly breach the border between Us and Them, but that border closes faster than water over a thrown stone. Within a day, the footage of aggressive able-bodied adult men on the Hungarian railway platform reassured many that they are Them, not Us. Definitely.
Fourth on the list of reasons to move on from the initial emotional response to the photograph was unspoken, but there, nonetheless. It was the feeling the ghost-unformed faceless figures on the LÉ Eithne had done our duty for us. A bit like buying carbon credits, Ireland could point to the hundreds saved by the Irish navy as if being the naval rescuers put us on the good side of the mercy arithmetic and consequently gave us a free pass when it came to doing much for them once they were dried off and given a cuppa.
Fifth on the list of reasons to snuff out anything but a choke-throated sentimentality about the little drowned boy was a doozy. It came in the form of a rhetorical question nobody asks but everybody knows the answer to.
“Look,” that question goes. “Do you want tax cuts in the Budget or do you want refugees?” Binary choice. Either/or. The sort of question we answer with confident virtue when a microphone is put in front of us, and with something covert and far from virtue in our own minds when we look at the bank statement and wonder if we’re ever going to personally feel the economic recovery.
Sixth is so many of these refugees are so well-dressed, so young and so well-fed. They cannot really be suffering, goes the snuffer-thought. They are economic migrants. Economic migrants are just in it for the money and therefore we are absolved from responsibility and it’s scary to see them pounding on the doors of that train.
T HE list can stop there or it can go to ten or more. It doesn’t matter. No shame lies in forgetting Aylan Kurdi. All that is demanded of us, before the cone comes down on our conscience, is that we say “something should be done, this is not acceptable.”
And then we can — as Auden described the ordinary folk doing in Breughel’s painting of Icarus falling into the sea — “turn away quite leisurely from the disaster,” because they had something better to do with their time than make his fate an exigency in their lives.
The difference, of course, is that Breughel’s people may not actually have seen “the white legs disappearing into the green water,” while we have no such excuse.
We saw the little white legs, feet still encased in sodden sneakers laced so lovingly by the mother who also died.
We saw them and something shifted in the souls we had forgotten we had. We want to show more than garage-flower sympathy.
But will we? Will we, really?
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