Look at the photos coming out of northwest Syria: adults and small children stricken by poison gas attacks, foam streaming from their mouths and noses. Babies with gas masks clamped to their faces. Dead toddlers stacked in the back of pickup trucks.
It’s exploitative. It’s necessary. It rips through our numbness. It causes us to become more numb.
An image of a young casualty of war, like the gassed Syrian children in this week’s papers and online feeds, is more than a news photograph. It’s a call to our individual consciences, a demand that, at long last, something be done. And if it seems that nothing can be done, what then? Do we need to see more of these images, or do more only diminish each one, until they’re merely part of our daily photo-streams: a parade of bad things happening to other people?
For now, no. We treat children differently when it comes to the news. They’re not the movers of events but, rather, on the receiving end of the worst actions of the adults. They are victims by nature. By the vague Geneva Convention rules we carry around in our heads, children are not to be harmed or exploited by grown-up conflicts. Which is a horrific self-deception, obviously.
You don’t want to know? These photographs say: Tough. You live in the world, and this is a consequence of what is happening in the world. Specifically, this is what President Bashar Assad of Syria is doing to the people of his country. Such images hit us where it hurts, in our entitled, comfortable social solar plexus. They stop us in our day and urge us to take action, any kind of action. They cut through the noise.
And so they have a utility that runs along a volcanic seam of exploitation. Because the image of a dead or wounded child is simultaneous evidence of horror and a horror in itself, it both breaks a taboo and provides its own reason for doing so. And it can have results. One of the most iconic images of the Nazi regime during World War II is the photograph of a 7-year-old boy taken prisoner during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, his arms upraised and his eyes desperate at a German soldier’s gunpoint.
The photo was snapped by an anonymous Reich cameraman and included in SS Major General Jürgen Stroop’s 75-page report to his superiors. Little seen during the war, the Stroop Report and its images were entered as evidence during the postwar Nuremburg trials. The photo of the little boy — never identified, although there have been a handful of claimants over the decades — quickly became emblematic. You might even say that the boy ultimately led Stroop to his public hanging in 1951, at a site near the ghetto.
There are many pivotal photographs of the Vietnam War: the burning monk, the streetside officer shooting the rebel in the head, the bandaged American GI reaching out for a fallen comrade. None so completely solidified home-front opposition to the war as AP photographer Nick Ut’s shot of a naked 9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc running from a South Vietnamese napalm attack on June 8, 1972.
Newspapers debated whether to run the image on their front pages; most did. The Oval Office tape recorder captured President Richard Nixon wondering if the photo had been faked. Immediately upon taking the picture, Ut covered Phuc and took her to a hospital, ultimately intervening to get her to an American burn facility. Ut’s photograph won a Pulitzer Prize; Phuc, now 54, lives in Canada with her husband and children.
There are other images that crystallize public sorrow and horror. The firefighter cradling the dying infant Baylee Almon in the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing is one such example; nothing Timothy McVeigh might have said in his warped defense could compete with that. And there are lines we still will not cross. There are certainly police and news photographs of the young victims in the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school shootings, but they have never gone public and hopefully never will. We need no convincing that something horrible happened there.
(Or perhaps we do. Is it the lack of grim “proof” that has the crazies insisting the Newtown massacre was a hoax? Or is it that we can only bear to look at photos of dead children when they’re from other countries or other cultures?)
The Syrian war and the refugee crisis it has spawned have resulted in a sickening abundance of fresh images. We know them all. Three-year-old Alan Kurdi, lifeless and washed up on a beach near Bodrum, Turkey, in September 2105. Five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, his face blackened, his expression blank, after a Russian airstrike in August 2016. Now the bodies and the survivors of Khan Sheikhoun.
The images cut through the noise, but they’re also in danger of becoming the noise. What once were taboo images are now part of our daily tsunami of digital information — they’re right there in our hands — and their awfulness doubles as click-bait. Of course such photographs need to be seen — they’re news — but how do they pierce our bubbles without causing us to grow tougher hides? The challenge of these pictures is on us to act, but far too many of us look at them, see no immediate course of action, and resign ourselves to impotence. The photographs become an ugly speed bump in our day, and after a while we may stop noticing them at all.
At which point, we become morally dead.
So what do you do? Google the words “Syrian relief” for a start. Donate to a relief organization or to the White Helmet rescue workers. Support the global placement refugee effort in whatever ways you can. Support nonviolent activist groups, like Planet Syria, working for peace in the region.
At the very least become informed, if not involved. When images of the young wounded and dead no longer speak to us, then maybe we’ve lost our right to speak at all.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.