Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Charlie Hebdo Cartoon of Aylan Kurdi Wrong for One Reason: It Lacked Humanity

We’ve all heard the phrase ‘charm offensive’. ‘Offensive offensive’ is never used, but I can think of no phrase better suited to what Charlie Hebdo is doing right now. You know I’m talking about the latest cartoon, depicting the lifeless body of Aylan Kurdi lying just short of a billboard offering a two-for-one meal deal.

I’m not going to bother getting into whether the message is mocking the victim or mocking western culture. It’s irrelevant. This cartoon is wrong for one simple reason: it has the power to bring untold upset to the father and family members of the little boy who died.


Satire is indeed a powerful tool, and I use it myself in my novels. I even killed a child with a zombie sheep to satirize John Gummer’s shameless PR stunt of force-feeding his daughter a burger on TV during the Mad Cow crisis.

But there is a difference. The child in my book was fictional. There was no family to weep for her, no father to once again feel the horror of his child’s death, only magnified tenfold by the pen of a smug cartoonist sitting in his office, feeling he has the right to play with other people’s suffering to make a point.

I used to work as Managing Editor for a website covering Somalia. Every day, my inbox would be stuffed with images of death—bodies blown apart, gaping bullet wounds, and severed heads—sent by journalists who wanted to sell them. I often thought about publishing them, thinking that maybe, just maybe, such images would get the reality of the conflict across and make something happen. But I didn’t. Because I thought of how it would make the family members of the victims feel should they stumble across them (this, incidentally, was why so many Kenyans were angry at Western media for showing the bodies of the Westgate victims, and pointed out that this would never have happened to white victims—a discussion for another day).

So, yes, we should be making a point about this unfolding refugee crisis. My personal take, for what it’s worth, is that we need to go beyond the knee-jerk response of letting more refugees in. Yes, we should do this, but we should also create a coordinated response that ensures the many more refugees who will come as a result, hoping to also be let in, don’t drown or suffocate in the back of trucks.

And that will happen. It is happening.

Refugees need to be properly coordinated, housed in temporary camps, and then transported safely to the countries that will host them. The smugglers have to be put out of business. And, as much as I dislike David Cameron, his comment about the real solution being peace in Syria is correct (although, of course, this is almost impossible for the West to bring about, and was his attempt to justify the UK’s heartless position).

Anyway, my stance is very simple. Charlie Hebdo could have made whatever point it wanted to make in others ways. It didn’t have to use Aylan Kurdi. To do so was lazy or heartless. Probably both.

When I saw that picture, I damn near cried. This is because my son is the same age and size. When Aylan was lying in the gendarme’s arms, his head lolling back, he looked just the way my son does when I carry him, sleeping, to bed. I can’t even begin to imagine how Aylan’s father feels when he sees that picture. And that is why this cartoon was wrong.

I’m all for free speech. But free speech has to have self-imposed limits from those who exercise it. Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists need to step from their intellectual garret and show some humanity. Some empathy. The way the world did when they were the ones lying dead on the ground.

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