I see the prone boy sometimes when I close my eyes, his red t-shirt hiked up to reveal his soft belly, his rump slightly raised like my daughter’s when she sleeps. But the prone boy is not sleeping; he is dead, face down on a beach in Turkey.
I saw his picture when it came out a couple years ago — I think; I can’t remember — but had no reference point for it. He was a Syrian child (I had no children and had never been to Syria), dead (I had minimal experience with death) on a beach in Turkey (another country I had never been to). The only thing that’s changed since then is that I now have a child. I’ve traveled but haven’t been to either of those countries (or anywhere in the middle east), and though I’ve gotten older, and thus increased my proximity to it, I don’t feel any better acquainted with death. The other thing that’s changed is that we now have a president who doesn’t give a shit about non-Americans (or most Americans, for that matter). But anyway, I’ve got a daughter, so now I can better imagine it — a child dead, drowned, on a beach.
Childless (child-free? unchilded?) people hate this premise I’m working with — “you don’t have children, so you just don’t know, can’t understand” — and they’re right to hate it; it’s sanctimonious, but it’s true for me. When I didn’t have a child, I didn’t know, and now I know. I have been yanked sideways into a world in which I can imagine all the unimaginable things that can happen to a child.
For us parents (if I may speak for us) the prone boy represents our deepest fear: that we cannot keep our children from the worst that life has to offer. Parenting is hard enough (for me at least) in an affluent country that has many parental support structures (let’s leave aside the topic of paid parental leave for the moment, Ivanka); I can’t imagine how hard it is in a country ravaged by war, death loitering at every turn. Or, actually, I do imagine it all the time. On the subway: I’ve got Poe strapped to my chest, and a deranged man (always a man) pulls out a gun and starts firing. Do I kick the gun out of his hands or turn and face the corner, the bullets going into my back instead of into Poe? In the street: I launch myself, knocking Poe out of the way and taking the full brunt of the oncoming bus myself. During societal breakdown: Alexis and I walk across the George Washington Bridge and down to Hoboken to her parents. I defend us from marauders with the knives we got as a wedding gift (I have already picked out the two that will give me the most heft and ease). But these are action movie fantasies divorced from the true horrors that life constantly dishes out in countries on the other side of the world.
I cannot show the picture of the prone boy to Alexis. I don’t think I’m underestimating her when I say she couldn’t handle it. As it is, she gets this wary, panicked look when I start in on any story involving harm to children, like she might rather jump out the window or knock me unconscious than hear about it. Maybe she has seen the picture. I don’t know. We don’t talk about it.
Much has been made of the picture of the prone boy by the public. His family was trying to migrate to Canada, and his death (or the picture of his corpse, actually) set off a far-reaching national conversation about refugees and may have had a hand in the election of the dreamy Justin Trudeau, a politician who seems to have been created by a computer to make us feel even worse about our American president (if that’s possible). Justin Trudeau is Luke Skywalker to Trump’s Jabba the Hutt (America is Princess Leia in this scenario). Donald Trump is a disgusting, cretinous piece of shit is what I’m ultimately getting at.
Others have, bafflingly, taken issue with the photo as manipulative, as propaganda. As if the truth has a political bias. And yet, there’s a point in there. Should one photo dictate national policy? Probably not. The world has had refugee problems for eons and one photo of a boy face down on the beach, the surf advancing to touch his hair, his skin, belies the complicated nature of immigration, no matter how evocative the photo is. Much smarter people than I spend their lives thinking about this sort of thing, but allow me to dig in for a moment.
Let’s get extremely obvious: immigration, like most ideas that have ramifications in the real world, lies in a grey area between two extremes. We can’t bar everyone from entering our country: besides being impossible, it would be unthinkably cruel. But we can’t let everyone in either. I can’t seem to find a concrete number of attempted immigrants to the U.S. (hey, this is a blog, not a journalistic publication like Breitbart) but let’s presume it’s a rather large number. The U.S. currently has around 320 million residents. If we let in every prospective immigrant, that number would rise precipitously quickly, cities would bulge, the infrastructure of the country would buckle. So we (other people, not me) have to decide where to draw the line and how to draw the line and what dictates whom the line includes and whom the line leaves out. And sometimes the line will leave out young people, and sometimes those people will drown when their impossibly flimsy boat capsizes off the coast of Turkey.
And jesus, look, the prone boy didn’t die because Canada (or the U.S.) wouldn’t let him in; he died because his own country didn’t want to let him out, because the journey was grueling, because there were people willing to take money from refugees and put them on boats that were nearly guaranteed to sink. So, the picture, for me at least, sets off complex political questions that spiral off into the ether, questions that the picture alone cannot answer.
Because maybe it is just a picture — of a boy on a beach. The beach in the picture is clean, the boy’s clothes soaked but undamaged, the skin on his soft belly and legs immaculate. A man from the Turkish Coast Guard stands several feet away, looking on. “Get out,” I think. “Get the fuck away from him.”
I can only look at the picture for a couple of seconds at a time before needing to look away. It is too much. So many things feel that way these days. Too, too, too much. Come to think of it, I regret even writing about the prone boy. I don’t deserve to engage with his picture. I am just some guy that has the luxury of waxing intellectual about an image that contains within its borders the absolute worst that life has to offer.