A drowned toddler, his lifeless body washed up on a Turkish shore. A Turkish police officer, himself a father, standing helpless, head bowed, just metres away.
The photo stunned me.
His name was Alan Kurdi, and he was three years old. His family, refugees from Syria, were trying to reach Greece by rowboat.
The photo stunned me, perhaps because Alan looked all-too-like my own three-year-old grandson. Perhaps because he reminded me of my sister, who drowned almost 50 years ago. Perhaps because of the flashback to a different child and a different war: Kim Phuc, fleeing the napalm fires of Vietnam, naked, horror written all over her face.
Whatever the reason, I couldn’t hear the words of the newscaster. I couldn’t speak. Speech seemed not only inadequate, but a desecration.
In the days since, policy-makers, pundits and politicians have filled the airwaves. What do we do? How can we keep our doors closed to people who have lost everything? We need more military presence to uproot ISIS. We need to get Canada’s military out because it’s only creating more refugees. Alan’s only one of thousands of kids who have died; one of millions displaced by war. Et cetera.
I suppose these debates are necessary. In fact, I hear these voices in my own head as well as on TV. But don’t you think the noise crowds out a needed silence?
I had the same reaction after 9/11. I had been part of the committee planning a national conference of professional ethicists to occur in Winnipeg in early October. The planes hit the Twin Towers and the shock waves sent our planning into chaos. Several colleagues suggested we scramble to organize a discussion session. And we did. But as I recall, the session began with a period of dead silence. And that was the most eloquent part for me.
We do need big picture responses that recognize Alan Kurdi was only one of thousands of drowned refugees. We do need to join others in effective, practical, large-scale response. I know that. But suppose Alan was the only one. Suppose only one innocent three-year-old died in his parents’ arms today. Isn’t that one too many?
Death is a rupture in the universe. The rupture is redeemed again and again by the grace of God who refuses to let sin and death have the last word. I believe that. I entrust Alan Kurdi to God’s eternal goodness.
But the fact that divine grace overwhelms death does not mean it is inconsequential. Alan Kurdi may spend eternity with the angels and walk streets of gold, but he won’t have a fourth birthday. He won’t grow into manhood and have his own family. He won’t form convictions that shape anyone else’s thinking. These losses are monumental. And we shouldn’t sweep them away with the comment that that’s the human condition, get used to it.
I think there is a desecration whenever a human being dies. Any human being. Anytime. Anywhere. The Salvation Army has insisted from the very beginning that God does not want any of the infinitely valuable creatures who bear his image to perish. If we cannot be silent and bow our heads in the presence of an Alan Kurdi, like Command Sergeant Major Çıplak did, we have lost our way.
Dr. James Read is the director of The Salvation Army Ethics Centre in Winnipeg.