On May 14, 2018, an eight-month-old Palestinian baby named Layla Ghandour was at home in the Gaza strip, playing with her uncle. Only a few miles away, thousands of Palestinians were protesting Israel along the eastern border of Gaza as part of the weeks-long “Great March of Return.”
Lalya’s uncle, Ammar Rezeq, took her to the protest to find their family. At the protest site, Israeli soldiers held back the barrage of protesters with tear gas. Layla and Ammar fled the scene, but it was too late. Some time later, she died of toxic gas inhalation, which one doctor said might have been compounded by her underlying, pre-existing heart condition. She was one of 62 Palestinians killed by Israeli troops on May 14 and 15.
In death, Layla has become a symbol of the Palestinian resistance movement. Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza, organized and televised (paywall) her funeral.
Because she was only an infant, her death—and accompanying photographs of relatives mourning her loss—has the ability to move people in ways that little else can. But while it is only natural to feel grief at Layla’s death, it is necessary to remember that she was a human being, not a cause.
The political power of suffering children
It’s not uncommon for young children to become symbols of international political crises. In 2015, a photo of a Syrian three-year-old boy, Aylan Kurdi, who had drowned off the coast of Turkey, went viral. He became the face of the tragedy of the refugee crisis. In 2016, a photo of a five-year-old Syrian boy, Omran Daqneesh, covered in dust and blood, came to represent the hundreds of thousands of victims in the Syrian civil war.
The phenomenon of “psychic numbing” explains why a single photo of a child so often comes to crystallize the deaths of many. Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon, says this theory explains why the world so often ignores mass suffering and wars.
Humans are terrible at understanding, and empathizing with, suffering on a vast scale. We are much better at showing empathy in the face of an individual’s tragedy. That’s what’s called the “singularity effect.” We care more when a young mother dies during childbirth than we do about the broader problem of maternal mortality; we may donate money to help send a first-generation student to college, while remaining largely unmoved by the issue of sky-high tuition.
“We all go to great lengths to protect a single individual or to rescue someone in distress, but then as the numbers increase, we don’t respond proportionally to that,” Slovic told Vox. “We don’t scale that up, even when we’re capable.”
Images and narratives about individual suffering can be impactful—but they don’t have staying power. Images and narratives about individual suffering can be impactful—but they don’t have staying power.
In a study published in the journal PNAS in January 2017, Slovic and three colleagues showed that the photo of Aylan Kurdi sparked an uptick in empathy from the global community about the refugee crisis, which they measured through rates of donations to the Swedish Red Cross fund dedicated to Syrian refugees, as well as Google search data for terms related to the crisis and the Syrian war. The effect lasted for about a month. As Slovic and his colleagues write, “The photograph of a single identified individual captured the attention of people and moved them to take interest and provide aid in ways that were not motivated by statistics of hundreds of thousands of deaths.” However, “the data also show that this form of empathy quickly faded and donations subsided.”
The problem is that the world’s biggest political and social problems are not individual, nor can they be solved within the period of a month. They are collective, and ongoing. If it takes a compelling story of an individual child’s death to gain our attention and move us to action, we ensure that many more children, whose stories are never brought to light, will continue to suffer after enough time passes and the world moves on.
Nicole Dahmen, an associate professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon, told Quartz that a photo, as powerful as it may be, “can only do so much.” “It can help to create a moment, but unless we have some sort of sustained political and humanitarian action, it’s just a moment, and the mass suffering continues,” she said.
How can we fight off psychic numbing?
Only strong international institutions and coordinated humanitarian intervention can prevent deaths of children like Layla or Aylan. But there are ways to channel the emotional response we feel in the face of individual suffering into larger investments of time, money, and attention.
“Photos like this can hit us in the gut emotionally and can help to create an informed citizenry,” Dahmen said, but “the hope is that seeing these haunting images can help generate sympathy and moral outrage that could create a tipping point.” That’s why many international aid organizations have used the powerful imagery of children’s suffering to raise awareness and fundraise for humanitarian campaigns.
But there’s still a risk of commoditizing the suffering, and even death, of children in this effort. “We must always remember when these photos are turned into political symbols, that the victims in these photos are people,” Dahmen said. She points to her research about the impact of the now-famous photo of Kim Phuc, a young Vietnamese girl burned by napalm gas during the Vietnam War. That photograph helped galvanize the opposition to the Vietnam War, both within and outside the US, and “napalm girl” became a symbol of the cruelty of the war.
Dahmen says that Kim Phuc told her in an interview that the photograph “haunted” her for the rest of her life. “It wasn’t just the war, or the napalm burn, or the scar she was left with, that changed her life; it was the photo that changed her life,” Dahmen explained. She was taken out of school on a regular basis by the Vietnamese government to lobby against the war. (She later defected to Canada.)
It’s easy to forget that the people in iconic photographs and stories are human beings. Their suffering, and the suffering of their families, is not symbolic, even if they later become symbols of a greater struggle. And particularly in the case of young children, we should be wary of accepting political narratives that seek to position them as martyrs for a given cause, since the children themselves cannot understand the conflicts of which they are a part. Hamas, for example, has decried Layla’s death, but members of the baby’s family told the Financial Times that they had no choice but to attend the protests at the Gaza border, having been prompted to go by local imams in buses paid for by the Islamist group.
We should not accept the narratives offered either by the Israeli military, which disputes the circumstances of Layla’s death, or by Hamas, at face value. But it is valuable to channel the grief we feel at her death, and the deaths of dozens of other Palestinians who died in the protests, toward pledging more time, attention, and support to humanitarian causes everywhere. “This is the worst kind of tragedy,” said Dahmen, “the death of a tiny baby who hasn’t even begun to live her life.”
This reporting is part of a series supported by a grant from the Bernard van Leer Foundation. The author’s views are not necessarily those of the Bernard van Leer Foundation.