The picture of Ayman Kurdi is changing the hearts of Europe. At least, it should. It’s a disgrace and shame, a wretched tragedy, that this is not the picture of a child holding a toy and smiling, but of a tiny, feeble body carried from the vast waters of the ocean in which he drowned.
If you look at the Turkish gendarme who has just picked this limp boy up from the gravelly shore, it appears that he is not looking directly at the child. He seems kind, and the way he holds the boy is careful, but his face is averted from the gentle, miserable burden he carries.
That picture reminded me at once of how Primo Levi describes the four Russian soldiers on horseback, the outriders of his liberation, as they see the fences of Auschwitz:
They seemed oppressed not only by compassion but by a confused restraint…It was that shame we knew so well…the feeling of guilt that such a crime should exist, that it should have been introduced irrevocably into the world of things that exist. (The Truce)
Things have been allowed to exist which should never ever have come into being.
The price of war, especially civil war, is almost always paid mainly by what is most innocent: children, women, schools, hospitals, homes of ordinary people. I heard a fellow interviewee on Radio 5 Live yesterday say that Syrians should stay in Syria because civil wars generally last no more than ten years and they and their talents should be there to rebuild the country when it’s all over. Of course, peace is the ultimate answer, and a fair, just, open country. But when?
How many people would be shot, bombed, gassed, starved or dead from disease by then? If you or I were there with our children, wouldn’t we too seek a different future? And if the only escape, as it so often was for Jews from 1938 onwards, lay in trusting some inscrutable figure to whom we were directed by someone else we scarcely knew to ‘get you over the border’ for an extortionate fee, mightn’t we, too, succumb to the last, only chance?
We have become witnesses to terrible suffering. We didn’t cause it, but are not free to disregard it. The Hebrew Bible contains the powerful verb lehitalem: to see, but pretend one has not noticed. That’s a moral crime. We have seen; now we have to notice.
This country, a haven to so many of our parents, will now be on the wrong side of history if it becomes known as the land which locked its doors. We cannot let that happen. I believe the great majority of the British, and Europeans, do not want that to be their country’s final word. Those I speak with recognise that collectively we have money, talents, time, perhaps even space and homes, to give and share. Many of our families were taken in and offered safety once; should we not help do likewise?
Who are we, if we can continue to watch children drown, and do nothing?