COLUMN: Worth 1,000 mournful words

The photo of little Alan Kurdi is upsetting as hell but absolutely necessary.

I was glancing through my Facebook feed a few mornings ago — chewing on a piece of toast, and scrolling aimlessly past the usual assortment of cats and babies and “You won’t believe how she got revenge on her cheating husband”-style bumf — when I  spotted something that stopped my finger, mid-swipe.

In a post, a friend had expressed her outrage at the media in general for having the insensitivity to publish a photo of a three-year-old Syrian boy, whose body had washed up on a beach in Turkey.

“How dare they?” “Uncaring swine!” her Greek chorus of supporters chimed in along down the line.

With great restraint, I resisted sticking in my oar. This wasn’t a conversation among my own friend group and I don’t think of Facebook as an ideal place to engage in complex political debate.

But silence wasn’t an option I found overly appealing either — not when there is so much at stake.

My response, had I posted it, would have been this:

Of course we don’t want to look at that photo. It’s upsetting as hell.

But we need to look at it — for exactly the reason it kindled  such a raw emotional outburst among that group of Facebook friends.

Alan Kurdi died, along with his mother and brother, during his family’s desperate attempt to flee their war-torn homeland, seeking a place where they could live their lives free from violence, famine and disease.

Oxfam Canada puts the death toll of the Syrian conflict at more than 200,000 so far.

In addition, more than four million Syrian refugees are living in neighbouring countries. In Syria alone more than 12 million people are in need of water, food, and shelter.

But these are just numbers. And we, as a society, are growing increasingly numb to numbers. When we hear them, we shake our heads, mutter a few platitudes about how sad it all is, maybe write a cheque and then carry on with our day.

If it takes the image of small child’s body washed up on a beach to start a meaningful conversation about what his happening to real, flesh-and-blood human beings, then, as sad as that truth is, the photo needs to be published and it needs to be shared.

Alan isn’t being victimized by its publication. He’s gone.

Gone, like thousands before him and, without a doubt, thousands more to come.

In journalism ethics classics, we’re taught to weigh what people are OK with seeing in the morning paper over their bowl of cereal against the news value that any given photo carries. Often, it’s a question of degrees of gruesomeness.

The photo of Alan isn’t gruesome — far from it. He could well be sleeping.

But we know he isn’t sleeping, and nothing about that is OK.

The photo has been compared to another famous shot — that of Vietnamese girl Kim Phuc, whose clothes were burned off by napalm.

That horrifying image was crucial in putting an end to an unpopular war.

Last Thursday in Surrey, Alan’s story managed to knock the prime minister off message — during what is arguably the most tightly scripted campaign in recent history — to talk about Canada’s immigration policy and our role in the Syrian conflict.

As we head toward the federal election, now is the ideal time to let candidates know where you stand on both issues.

The only chance we have to effect real change is to care enough about what is happening to demand that change.

Or, we can all just go back to our breakfast.