They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Perhaps so, but let me add another 800 or so on the image above, which has cut through the media deluge like no other of late.
The fact that we know the name of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh is a minor miracle given that nearly half a million have gone anonymously and unremarked to their graves in Syria. Even the flintiest of hearts must surely have been moved by the sight of a grimy five-year-old wiping blood from his head in shocked silence.
Or then again, perhaps not. Can we be so certain about our common humanity? Did Vladimir Putin’s bomber pilots high five when they returned to base, certain of another mission successfully accomplished? This is what they have trained for and a measure of their professional excellence presumably.
What could be more enjoyable than putting all those finely honed skills into practice – especially when there was no chance of any resistance from the opposing military, much less the shell-shocked citizens cowering in the rubble below?
Did Putin watch the aftermath of his grand strategising, or does his army of flunkeys and lackeys insulate him from such unpleasant realities? It is hard to know which is worse: he remains ignorant or knows but is entirely without feeling or compunction. One strongly suspects the latter.
This must surely be true of Bashar Hafez al-Assad, who must be able to actually hear the gunfire at times, and perhaps even his barrel bombs as they rain down on the rubble and the corpses. What does he hope to achieve? How could it be preferable to decamping to a villa in France and living off his ill-gotten gains for the rest of his years as self-respecting despots used to do?
And what will happen to Omran amid all this unresolved and seeming endless carnage? His 15 minutes of fame will hopefully earn him and what’s left of his family an escape to somewhere peaceful as the “international community” indulges in another bout of hand-wringing.
Omran’s brother won’t be joining him, though. Ten-year-old Ali was apparently playing outside when the family’s flat was destroyed in yet another Russian airstrike. Perhaps the pilots could emblazon the fuselages of their plane with images of children to commemorate their heroism.
But even if the significance of all this is lost on Omran now, how long will what passes for childish innocence in Syria actually last? Omran and his surviving friends will grow up amid the ruins of their city with no chance of employment or any of the other things that give meaning and purpose to existence.
If he becomes a “freedom fighter”, a terrorist, or a suicide bomber, would we be at all surprised? The surprise would be if he didn’t do one of the above. I know I would in such circumstances.
But as we sit speechless in front of our plasma screens in our air-conditioned lounge rooms, how are we supposed to deal with the acute cognitive dissonance Omran’s image induces – unless we’re equipped with the steely resolve of a great world leader, of course?
One response is to immerse ourselves in the vacuous tosh that passes for entertainment in an era of the endless cooking and home improvement shows – not to mention sport. Patronising as that no doubt sounds, I don’t actually blame people who do.
But the great contradiction of “globalisation” is that it really is difficult to insulate ourselves from the plight of the likes of Omran, whether they are being carpet bombed or washing up at our feet on Europe’s beach resorts. It doesn’t make for cheery viewing and is difficult to process, as they say these days.
There are modest things we can do, though, that may help our own psychological well being and – who knows? – they may even have an impact, too. One is to actually talk about it, especially to people who might even be able to make a difference. Whinging is mildly therapeutic; some of us have made it our vocation.
The other is to give money to people who are actually working on the ground and trying to do something, even if it looks like a rather futile band-aid at times. My preferred band-aid dispensers are Médecins Sans Frontières, but there are others. Whoever it is, give them some money. It may not make a decisive difference to Omran’s life, but it might to yours.
Authors: Mark Beeson, Professor of International Politics, University of Western Australia