You know the photo, a toddler’s body lies crumpled on the damp sand. A lone Turkish police officer looks over him. Alan Kurdi, aged 3, along with his brother and parents crammed into an overcrowded raft in the early morning hours of September 2, 2015. Departing from an isolated beach near Bodrum, Turkey, their goal was the Greek island of Kos. Had they arrived, the migrants would find themselves within the European Union and thus able to seek out resettlement programs or family members. It was not meant to be. The boy shared in the fate of thousands who attempted the Mediterranean crossing into Europe. The sea claimed him, but the photograph memorialized him.
You know the video. Aleppo is reeling from another aerial bombardment. A rescue worker elbows his way through a crowd. He is carrying a small child whom he deposits in the back of a waiting ambulance. The cameraman turns to the ambulance. We see the boy. He sits, staring into nothing. Blood and dust cover his hair. The lens lingers on him. Within 24 hours the face of Omran Daqneesh haunts screens around the globe.
It seems if new images arrive on the Internet documenting the brutality of the Syrian Civil War and its human cost appear every day. Go ahead, give Google Image Search a spin. If you know Arabic, you can find prime combat footage on Youtube.
The pictures of Alan Kurdi and Omran Daqneesh, for a brief moment, rose above the thrill of mere war-voyeurism and set a new standard for collective dismay. Yet, despite that 80% of the population of the United Kingdom had seen Kurdi’s photo, despite Barack Obama invoking Omran Daqneesh to push against nativism and xenophobia, the images are not enough: The conflict rages on. Red lines are crossed. The E.U.-Turkey migrant plan frays. The most recent ceasefire, declared on September 12, dies a slow death to the sound of renewed bombings by Russian and Syrian warplanes.
Image and spectacle serve an important purpose. In the case of the crisis in Syria, they carry information about events that occur far from the daily existence of most Americans’ lives but matter greatly to their leaders. Daqneesh’s thousand-yard-stare and Kurdi’s body stir the emotions, which create a bond between the audience, the two boys, and others like them.
The bloody, five-year grind of the Syrian Civil War shows that image alone will not suffice. It’s simple to talk about feelings and welcoming others into the country, but the spectacle of image tricks the mind into thinking that we have achieved a goal without accomplishing much at all. What will the solutions be to restore peace, prosperity, and life itself in Syria? I don’t know. No one else does either.
Despite that shortcoming, the images are a shock to the conscience and a reminder that the war must end.