Syrian families living in the UK recently expressed bemusement to me that “the world has gone mad” over the tragic case of a single baby, Charlie Gard, suffering a rare genetic disorder. Gard’s parents are fighting in British courts for the right to benefit from experimental treatment that could extend his life. These court cases have been picketed by “Charlie’s Army” of supporters, with hashtags such as #IAmCharlie going viral.
Why is this one baby receiving offers of assistance from everywhere, including the White House, while the lives of children elsewhere seem so incredibly cheap? On one level, it is wonderful that millions of people are deeply moved by the fate of one child, demonstrating empathy as one of the fundamental human emotions.
People struggle to respond to news about millions affected by famine in East Africa, but when faced with the tragic story of a single child, they cannot contain themselves. Is there a racial dimension to this? The cases of missing white American girls receive much more attention than their African-American counterparts. But this is not the whole story.
The image of the lifeless body of Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach in 2015 gained talismanic importance in transforming the debate around Syrian refugees in Europe — for a while. There was something unspeakably tragic about Kurdi’s body dumped by the sea in a location where we are accustomed to seeing children playing with buckets and spades. Cases of gravely ill children trapped in limbo because of US President Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban” similarly galvanized action against this unjust measure.
Rather than cynically trivializing the outpouring of responses to one child’s suffering, let us face it: Humans are inconsistent. We are wired to react disproportionately on a personal, spontaneous level, rather than be affected by raw statistics and dry political reports. The sight of a child in pain hits us in the gut and triggers our desire to help. When those who put their own lives at risk to rescue others are asked why they did so, they often simply shrug. How could they not have intervened?
I was unspeakably moved by testimonies in a recent Save the Children report about the psychological trauma of Syrian children who routinely experience more horror in their average day than most people do in a lifetime.
We are numbed by the statistic that half of Syria’s children experience symptoms of trauma and depression. But when this is brought down to an individual level, we begin to comprehend what this means for countless families. We thank God that our offspring escaped such a childhood.
Life only has value when the world acts to ensure that the most vulnerable are protected. There are too many countries where the value of life is close to zero. This misery feeds off the complacency, cynicism and inaction of parts of the world that could help but do not.
There are insights here for journalists about how we tell stories. Facts and statistics are necessary but insufficient. The vast Yemen conflict unfolds at an individual level of broken families, starving children and personal heartbreak. Hundreds of innocent citizens have been killed in US-led coalition bombings of Raqqa and Mosul. But because this carnage occurs far from the world’s cameras, they are shrugged off as collateral victims.
Israel has incessantly sought to garner sympathy for its own victims of “terrorism,” while taking measures against media outlets that featured Palestinian victims. Israel’s leaders understand the impact of pictures of dead babies, injured children and terrorized civilians, and manipulate usage of these images accordingly.
Charities know that citing statistics about famine victims has little impact, so they focus their campaigns on individual suffering: Tearful and lethargic children, their bodies disfigured by starvation. We talk about “compassion fatigue,” but such images never really stop having an impact. I never cease to be impressed by the response of ordinary people to humanitarian crises.
This is why it bothers me that we currently see so little coverage of disaster zones such as South Sudan. How can we expect a powerful response when the public are scarcely aware of what is happening? For those lucky to grow up far from war and hardship, it is possible to become insulated from suffering.
I still recall the shock of Lebanon in the mid-1970s, seeing everything I grew up with destroyed and friends killed. Just when we thought things could not get worse, further destruction was wrought by Israel’s invasion.
I hear platitudes that there is war in Syria because “they’ve been fighting each other for centuries,” and “these fanatics don’t know how to live peacefully.” But war was just as alien to Syrian families as it would have been in Paris or Tokyo.
Many refugees were professionals with comfortable lifestyles, aspiring to send their children to university. These children today wake up screaming from unimaginable nightmares. When given crayons, they draw pictures of friends burning to death and rockets raining down on neighbors.
We are told by philosophers and theologians that all life has intrinsic value. In practice, life only has value when the world acts to ensure that the most vulnerable are protected. There are too many countries where the value of life is close to zero. This misery feeds off the complacency, cynicism and inaction of parts of the world that could help but do not.
There are currently around 65.6 million people displaced by conflict worldwide, slightly higher than the UK population. This massive statistic is almost incomprehensible to us, yet it is the most natural thing to be moved to tears — and action — when we directly experience the suffering of just one of these refugees. We should not write such impulses off as naive or superficial. Our heartfelt response to individual suffering defines our humanity at its best.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate, a foreign editor at Al-Hayat, and has interviewed numerous heads of state.