WARNING : THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SOME VERY DISTURBING PICTURES AND VIDEO OF WOUNDED AND DEAD CHILDREN. READER DISCRETION IS ADVISED.
Estimated Reading Time : 8 minutes 22 seconds
Lately, the media has been loaded with images of suffering children in different settings around the world. In some unfortunate cases, especially in the case of war, the imagery seems to be used as a form of propaganda.
Last August Omran Daqneesh, a 5 year-old boy Syrian boy living in Aleppo, was wounded in a bombing alleged to be carried out by Russian or Syrian aircraft. Omran was photographed sitting in the back of an ambulance, covered in dust and blood. This gut-wrenching photo was soon on the front page of nearly every western newspaper and news channel.
The New York Times description of the photo is illuminating, “Omran, as he is carried from a damaged building in the dark, could be Everychild.“
This is what we do with the children in peril we see in photographs, we project ourselves, or our children into the same scenario, and this heightens our emotional connection and reaction. This is a normal, even healthy human response, the trouble is that it can leave us open to being manipulated by those who would exploit the suffering of children for their own means.
Similarly, in September of 2015 when Alan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian boy, was photographed dead on a Turkish beach after drowning trying to escape the Syrian civil war. Viewers were left horrified at the sight of Alan’s limp and lifeless body lying still in the sand, and they emotionally projected their own children onto the scenario.
The most recent example of the “children in peril” narrative was on April 4th, when video of an alleged chemical attack in Idlib province in Syria came to light. The horrifying video showed young children gasping for air and others lying motionless, presumably dead. The video was impossible to escape in western media, just as it was impossible not to have an emotional connection to those children and a reaction to their torment.
The Times was right, Omran could be Everychild, so could Alan Kurdi and the children in the Idlib video, because that is how they are presented to us in the media, they are our children, and we react accordingly, directing our righteous anger at those we are told are responsible for their suffering, in this case, Assad and Russia. Of course, since we are reacting emotionally and not responding thoughtfully, we are more easily manipulated into directing our aggression at persons who may not be fully to blame.
In the Omran photo, our rage could have easily been directed at rebel fighters and ISIS who created that situation in Aleppo instead of the Russians and Assad. The same for Alan Kurdi, who was trying to escape civil war, which is the fault of many, including Assad, Turkey, Europe and the U.S. The photos of Omran and Alan were props used by the establishment press to sell a very specific narrative, one that we, in our vulnerable emotional state, would not even think to question.
The greatest example of this was the video of the attack in Idlib. Trump himself was manipulated into acting emotionally, rather than rationally. Trump told reporters, “I will tell you, that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me – big impact. I’ve been watching it and seeing it, it doesn’t get any worse than that…even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack.”
Since beautiful children had been killed, Trump impulsively reacted by launching “beautiful weapons”, as NBC’s Brian Williams described them, to attack an airbase killing 15 people, who one can safely assume, were once beautiful children themselves.
Blaming a villain helps us to transform the uncomfortable emotions evoked by these images into action. Action gives us catharsis and we are purged of the negative feelings that these images bring about. Trump did not like the way the video of the Idlib attack made him feel, so instead of deliberating and gathering all of the facts and evidence, he impetuously attacked Syria to quell his discomfort.
This is what happens when we react emotionally to things instead of thoughtfully respond, we are susceptible to being suckered by those who may try to manipulate us. If Trump had thought rationally about the Idlib video, he would have realized that the rebels had already used a false flag chemical weapons attack in 2013, in order to try and draw the U.S. deeper into the conflict against Assad. The west blamed Assad back then too, but after emotions waned and reason waxed, the truth finally came out. Even though we are only a month past the Idlib attack, the same is happening regarding the facts of that case.
The dead giveaway that reveals the media’s deceitfulness regarding the use of children’s suffering as a political prop, is not just in the images they do show, but the ones they don’t.
The establishment press relentlessly pushed the picture of Omran on the public in order to demonize Assad and Russia, but deliberately ignored Hawraa, the 5 year old Iraqi girl who was the only member of her family to survive a U.S. led air strike on her home in Mosul. The video of Hawraa is just as emotionally wrenching as Omran’s picture, but it tells a story that contradicts the MSM’s narrative and undermines America’s sense of moral superiority over Russia and the Syrians.
And what about 8 year-old Nora Al-Alwaki, the American girl shot in the neck and killed by Navy SEALs when they raided her Yemeni village on January 29, 2017? Nora was a “beautiful” little girl, and an American one. Why wasn’t her picture continuously streamed to the American public by the MSM? Instead of Nora, we were fed the widow of Navy SEAL Ryan Owens who was killed in the same raid. Trump’s bold-faced exploitation of Mrs. Owens was hailed as Trump’s first act of “being presidential”. I suppose he was acting like a U.S. president when he callously ignored Nora and the other Yemeni children killed.
Whenever a child in peril is used to sell a political agenda, particularly a violent one, this must give us tremendous pause. In many cases, however, there exists an altruistic reason for showing the suffering of children, and that is a way of preventing such things from happening again.
Iconic images, like that of the “Napalm Girl” from the Vietnam war, for example, can at times wake America up to reality by breaking through the endless propaganda from the usual suspects, at other times though, similar images or stories can be manipulated by governments and the media for less noble causes.
At the same time, Hollywood utilizes our weakness for children in peril well. A perfect example is Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. In the black and white film, there is a harrowing sequence where Nazi’s forcibly remove Jews out of the Krakow ghetto. The scenario is horrifying enough, but Spielberg uses a little girl wandering through the mayhem to elicit more tension in the viewer. The girl stands out from the surrounding chaos because she wears a red coat, which is distinct since it’s the only splash of color in the entire film.
The girl in the red symbolizes the hopes, dreams and innocence snuffed out by the Nazi’s. The same is true when we see suffering children in the media, those images evoke in us deep feelings of empathy, sadness, and anger because those children symbolize our own hopes, dreams and innocence. Seeing graphic pictures of brutalized children leaves us thinking emotionally, not rationally, which is a good place to be when watching a film, but a bad place to be when operating in the real world.
Last week, Jimmy Kimmel, host of Jimmy Kimmel Live!, delivered a heartfelt monologue tearfully recounting his newborn son’s struggle with a serious heart defect. Kimmel’s story was made all the more powerful because the usually sarcastic comedian struggled to maintain his composure throughout.
Kimmel, normally an apolitical comedian, ended his monologue by pleading to Americans from both sides of the political aisle to make sure children receive medical care regardless of their ability to pay for it. Kimmel poignantly ended his speech by saying, “No parent should ever have to decide if they can afford to save their child’s life.”
Kimmel’s monologue soon went viral. When I saw it, it moved me very deeply. The accompanying pictures of his child with tubes and tape all over him affected me greatly. Had Kimmel played upon my emotions to manipulate me? I don’t think so. I believe Kimmel was sincere in his plea and wasn’t exploiting his son because Kimmel had nothing to gain by doing so. Not money, of which he has enough, or power, of which he has no need.
I’m sure I’m not alone in my reaction to Kimmel, being emotionally triggered by images of children suffering is human nature. The story changed the healthcare debate, and some republicans are now demanding any new health care bill must pass the “Kimmel Test”.
That said, there were some very harsh critics of Kimmel as well. Some right wingers assailed Kimmel for “exploiting” his young son to make a cheap political point. For example, former republican congressman Joe Walsh tweeted “Sorry Jimmy Kimmel: your sad story doesn’t obligate me or anybody else to pay for somebody else’s health care.”
The Washington Times ran an opinion piece by the aptly named Charles Hurt, which was titled “Shut up, Jimmy Kimmel, you elitist creep”. It was a vicious attack on Kimmel that ended with “if you were a decent person, you would shut your fat trap about partisan politics and go care for your kid, who just nearly died, you elitist creep.”
On the other side of the political spectrum, this past Friday I watched HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, and Maher nearly gave me whiplash with his jumping back and forth on the issue of using children in peril to make a political point. Maher started his show by praising his good friend Jimmy Kimmel for sharing his story and chastising republicans for telling Kimmel’s baby to basically “go fuck himself.”
Less than five minutes later, interview guest John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, told Maher he was uneasy about legalizing marijuana (one of Maher’s pet issues) because of the dangers to kids. Maher quickly jumped on Kasich’s statement and indignantly retorted “Why do we have to bring kids into it?”
Mere moments after that, during a discussion on healthcare, Maher told his panel of guests, “One side (democrats) wants to tax rich people so babies don’t have to die and one side is more or less against that, let’s not let republicans off the hook on that!” He then finished by saying “People will die and republicans know it and it is a price they are willing to pay!” Not surprisingly, no one on the panel asked Maher why he had to bring kids into it.
Maher’s use of suffering children to make a political point, contrasted with his aversion to others using the same tactic, is standard operating procedure not just for late night comedians but for the Establishment media as well, and illuminates the power of the suffering child narrative and why those on the opposite end of that argument lash out so viciously against those that use it…it's because they know how effective it is.
In this case though, Jimmy Kimmel doesn't benefit by persuading people with his son's story, however, the same is not true of the U.S. government.
So the next time a horrific photo of a child becomes a big story, stop, think rationally, not emotionally, and ask the question: who benefits? Maybe then we can halt the endless cycle of carnage that these images capture.
A version of this article was previously published on Tuesday, May 9, 2017 at RT.