One year ago today, the world was devastated by images of a small Syrian child who had drowned while attempting to reach safety in Greece. The photographs of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, face-down on a Turkish beach, did what the relentlessly rising death toll of Syrians had not: They woke the world to the plight of refugees.
Last month, another image of a child stood apart from the thousands of tragic photos that have emerged from the Syrian crisis. Staring at the camera through eyes glazed with shock, his face caked in dirt and blood, the haunting photograph of five-year–old Omran Daqneesh is impossible to ignore.
Implicit in the massive attention given to these haunting images is the hope that the sympathy and moral outrage generated by such photos will create a tipping point. Perhaps, if the world gets a glimpse of the lived reality behind the numbing statistics—nearly 500,000 deaths since the Syrian war began in 2011—the powerful nations of the world would finally be motivated to halt the carnage.
Could that hope become a reality? Don’t bet on it.
A photograph, no matter how emotionally wrenching, can only do so much. For a brief window in time, Kurdi’s image became a catalyst for action among world leaders and the public. Germany and Austria, for example, opened their borders to crossing migrants. Pope Francis urged Catholic churches across Europe to host refugees. Donations to funds for Syrian refugees jumped on September 3rd, the day after the photo appeared.
Unfortunately, this surge of activity was brief. After about a month, internet searches for the terms Syria, refugees, and Kurdi, which had spiked immediately after the photo, declined precipitously. Donations to the Swedish Red Cross returned to their much lower, pre-Kurdi level.
Most importantly, little has changed since Kurdi’s death. The bombing of civilians in Aleppo and elsewhere continues, as does the stream of refugees risking their lives to escape the war zone. The leaders at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in May appeared to show little interest in addressing what has been described as the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II, angering many of the aid organizations in attendance. After a string of boat disasters claimed 2,510 lives from January to May this year, Aylan Kurdi’s father made a heartbreaking claim: “My Aylan died for nothing.”
It’s time to confront some uncomfortable psychological facts about ourselves and our flawed arithmetic of compassion. The fact is that there will be no sudden emotional tipping point triggering aggressive humanitarian intervention.
Empathy is important, but not sufficient. We care greatly about protecting a single person in distress, particularly if they have a face and a name and happen to look like us. But in the face of numerous victims whose suffering is reduced to statistics, we lose empathy and the will to act. This psychic numbing is compounded by our irrational sense of inefficacy when faced with enormous devastation. We wind up feeling discouraged that we can only contribute what feel like partial solutions—a drop in the bucket. And so, all too often, we do nothing at all.
But with knowledge of these psychological obstacles comes the ability to reduce or even overcome them. When confronted with information about an individual victim that strikes an emotional chord we should pause, and try to imagine the hundreds of thousands of Aylans and Omrans whose photographs we do not see. We should recognize that even a partial solution can save whole lives, and balance emotion with reason by employing aids to decision-making (pdf) that have been shown to help us value human lives in ways that are sensitive to the numbers at stake.
Finally, we should remember to go beyond quick and relatively easy responses, such as donating money to victims or sounding off on social media. We need to push for laws and institutions that are grounded in moral reasoning and carefully considered values. If properly designed, laws and organizations will not falter even when individuals are lulled into complacency by psychic numbing and a sense of inefficacy.
There is precedent for this kind of response. We did it once before, in 1948, when countries around the world created the genocide convention and the United Nations in the aftermath of World War II. Though these are still important, they clearly don’t work well enough in today’s world. So we must be wary of emotional numbness in the face of mass threats to humanity, lest we sleep through mass atrocities and succumb to inaction. As long as we rely on a flawed arithmetic of compassion, we can expect to see many more photos like those of Aylan Kurdi and Omran Daqneesh.