Haunting images from the Syrian crisis tell only half the story

Susie Linfield writes: In early September, Nilüfer Demir’s photographs of Aylan Kurdi, the drowned Kurdish-Syrian three-year-old boy who washed up on a Turkish beach in his family’s desperate attempt to escape the Syrian war, appeared on the front pages of major newspapers throughout the world. The photographs immediately ricocheted across the globe, became instant icons, and inspired an outpouring of outrage, empathy, urgency, and shame. The Guardian‘s headline — “Shocking Images of Drowned Syrian Boy Show Tragic Plight of Refugees” — was echoed by countless others. (The photographs also inspired a somewhat pointless social-media debate about whether they injured young Aylan’s dignity — apparently forgetting that it was Assad, Hezbollah, ISIS, et. al. who had done that.)

This image-inspired concern may be too glib and the resulting donations to humanitarian organizations short-lived; it’s easy to disparage all this as the self-congratulatory pity that the comfortable feel for the afflicted. Such disparagement has a respectable intellectual lineage. The political philosopher Judith Shklar regarded pity as an essentially negative reaction that can even be “mean-spirited,” while French philosopher and human-rights activist Pascal Bruckner argues that it encompasses “sadism” and “an ostentatious pleasure…derived from the pain of others.” I am deeply sympathetic to their critique. And yet the Syrian war also illuminates, with brutal clarity, what a world without pity looks like. In this case, I am inclined to think that a bit of pity — a desire by onlookers, however superficial, to alleviate even a modicum of suffering — is a good thing. [Continue reading…]

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