Some images become iconic because of their very horrifying nature. And iconic not in the sense of becoming ‘popular’ but in summing up, in a single frame, the sickening horror of a war, a calamity, a tragedy. Some such images even help change public opinion: the photograph of the little Vietnamese girl running, burning, after a US napalm bomb strike during the Vietnam war comes readily to mind, and is ‘credited’ with bringing home to Americans the savagery of that war, and thereby supposedly hastening its end. But will the photograph of three-year old Aylan al-Kurdi, the Syrian boy who drowned off a beach in Turkey, even as it becomes viral on social media, and leading newspapers of the world print it on their front pages, change anything? Will it open the doors of fortress Europe, where many such refugees fleeing a barbaric war, are trying to reach? Will it really shake the conscience of the world, as it should, and enable the end of the bloody anarchy that has descended on vast stretches of West Asia? Leave Europe aside, with the rise of right-wing anti-immigrant regimes who by default would be unsympathetic to these refugees; will this photograph – among the others of Syrian children dead, drowned while making a perilous journey – not affect the hearts of the monarchs of stinking rich Gulf and Arab nations, many of whom are overtly or covertly participating in the carnage in Syria?
Perhaps the ‘power’, or rather the heart-rending nature, of the photo of little Aylan’s body, in his little shoes and red T-shirt, lying face down, just on the edge of the waves on that beach, lies in its contrast to the image of that burning, naked little Vietnamese girl. The latter was a direct horror, a scream staring at you. Aylan, in contrast, seems asleep, peacefully, quite in the posture babies of his age sleep off, dreaming of anything but war, horror and death. This is childhood, all of humanity, in its purest state of innocence, driven to death, lungs choked with sea-water, forgotten and abandoned in an uncaring, brutally cruel world.
There is a wider refugee crisis, not just emanating from Syria – though little Aylan, some estimates say, was one of the more than 2,500 humans who have died trying to cross the Mediterranean this year. But Aylan, and others like him, should not ‘become’ a number. If not Europe, let Muslim nations, among others, open their doors to these desperate refugees. And do it now.