In the age of social media sharing means caring. And nothing symbolizes caring more than sharing a photo of a dead or wounded child. But I took a deep breath and broke the chain when the picture of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh showed up on my Facebook feed last week – that now iconic image of the traumatized boy, wiping the blood from his face, alone in the ambulance, outside the rubble that once was his home in Aleppo.
It’s not that I was unmoved: No decent human being could remain untouched by the image of that poor child. But sharing it seemed futile.
Friend after friend around the globe posted the picture of Omran, whose brother died a few days later, urging earnestly: “Put an end to the madness” and asking the unanswerable: “When will it end?”
I tried to find out who was responsible for the attack. It makes no difference to Omran and his family whether it was Russian forces, anti-government forces, Bashar Assad’s forces, ISIS, or any splinter group who caused their immediate suffering. And my sympathy doesn’t depend on which side his family or their attackers belong to. My heart goes out to them – and to the hundreds of thousands of unseen victims; unseen in the Western press, that is.
Nonetheless, before blithely trotting out a slogan, it seemed pertinent to try to understand who’s involved.
That in itself is not a pretty picture.
As I write these lines, Turkish tanks are entering Syrian territory ostensibly to fight ISIS (although they probably won’t mind killing Kurds in the process). Last week, Russian fighter planes used Iranian air bases for a similar purpose. As much as they are fighting Islamic State, they are fighting to keep the brutal Assad regime in place. They are also fighting for their own power and prestige.
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There is a very tangled web out there. Omran got caught in it.
It now seems most likely that it was a bomb from a Russian plane that blasted Omran into our consciousness and consciences, although the Russian Defense Ministry denied it.
Unlike many images that have come out of the war zones, the video and photos do not seem faked. The boy’s dazed look is genuine. Yet certain elements seem staged – his “aloneless,” in the very center of the seat, for example. My reservations grew after I read several reports, originally from Chinese state broadcaster CCTV, that Mahmoud Raslan, the photojournalist who took the heartbreaking shots, has also been seen in pictures on social media in the company of “fighters” from Nour al Din al Zinki, who last month posted a video of themselves decapitating a 12-year-old Palestinian-Syrian boy near Aleppo. Not completely the compassionate type, then.
The exploitation of children goes way beyond publishing their shell-shocked images without their consent, an ethical dilemma in its own right.
On August 20, an ISIS suicide bomber as young as 12 allegedly carried out an attack on a Kurdish wedding in Turkey in which more than 50 people were killed, at least 22 of them under the age of 14, according to several reports.
Some journalists described the preteen as being “behind the attack,” but he wasn’t. Adult terrorists were behind it; he was pushed to the front as a pawn to do the lethal work.
The next day, Iraqi police arrested a boy around the same age just before he could carry out an attack for ISIS. Video footage shows him crying as the suicide vest was removed. It’s not clear whether they are tears of relief (many young suicide bombers have been forced to carry out the attacks) or tears of frustration at being denied his promised celestial virgins in jihadi paradise.
The same week that the world met Omran, it all but ignored the deaths of at least 10 children who, according to Doctors Without Borders, were killed in a school in a Houthi stronghold in Yemen.
In many of these cases, the civilian population is held as human shields, giving a false picture of who is to blame.
This week when a rocket was launched on Sderot from Gaza, probably by a Salafi group, it brought back traumatic memories for many Israelis, particularly in the South. On August 22, 2014, the day before Operation Protective Edge ended, four-year-old Daniel Tragerman was killed when a mortar shell hit his home on Kibbutz Nahal Oz. His image – forever an innocent boy playing with building blocks – came back to me this week, courtesy of the social media.
The murder of 13-year-old Hallel Yaffa Ariel as she lay sleeping in her bedroom in Kiryat Arba in June continues to haunt me, and not just because I spent a lot of time with her and her mother when she was a baby.
The most disturbing aspect is the response of the mother of the 17-year-old terrorist, who praised him as a martyr, and the ongoing payments to his family made by the Palestinian Authority.
When will it end? Not while the tax money of donor states is supporting murderers even as those same countries claim to be cracking down on terrorism.
I often wonder what would have happened had the mass media and the social media existed during the Second World War.
As shocking as an image is in itself, the way people pass it on without really thinking – as if a tweet or Facebook share could be considered taking real action – is equally sad. Trending is trendy, but we need to transcend the hashtag.
As Brendan O’Neill summed up succinctly in a Spectator blog last September, when the picture of toddler Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body on a Turkish beach was being virally shared around the world: “There’s a tradition of pushing victimised or dead kids to the front of news reporting. And more recently they’ve been given a starring role in the Twitterati’s handwringing over global calamities. From those famous images of half-starved children in Ethiopia in the 1980s to the ugly fashion for sharing photos of dead children from Israel’s attacks on the Gaza Strip last year, the sad or hungry or dead child has become a substitute for serious analysis or rational commentary. It shuts down discussion. ‘You don’t think Israel is evil? Well, look at this photo of this blown-up Palestinian kid.’ It’s cheap moralism, emotionalism taking the place of thoughtfulness.”
The Assad regime received a boost when the post-nuclear deal reality strengthened the Russian- Iranian alliance; Iran and its proxy Hezbollah are exploiting the situation as part of the Shi’a-Sunni conflict with Saudi Arabia and the often overlooked split along Arab Muslim vs non-Arab Muslim lines (playing out also in Yemen); and there is a tribal-sectarian element involving, among others, the Druse, Kurds and Alawites. Assad’s forces, the so-called moderate rebels, and Islamic State and its satanic splinter groups all claim their dead as martyrs. None of them are saints.
The photos are not black and white. Neither is the situation. Rather than simply sharing the photo of a bloodied boy, I share my dilemma and my firstname.lastname@example.org
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