This Isn’t About the Death of a Kid

No, it’s about something much more important. This cartoon was run in the latest edition of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine that was targeted by terrorists in January of this year:


That’s right, it’s a drawing of Alan Kurdi drowned in the waves as he and his family attempted to flee the most dangerous country in the world right now, Syria. At first blush, it seems terribly tasteless, but we should look at the cover a bit closer. You can’t help but notice the McDonald’s-style sign at the edge of the beach, offering a discount on children (side note: wonder how McDonald’s is feeling about this attention?).

The meaning seems clear. Charlie Hebdo is talking about the sheer number of Alan Kurdis entering Europe, and that so many of them are dying. It’s a smorgasbord of dead children, washed up on Euro-sand. But further than that, the image appears to be making a statement about how the western world sees this tragedy, and what it’s doing about it – not much. Perhaps nothing more than heading out to the nearest burger joint to sit in an air conditioned mecca of formite tables, and, if we’re lucky, a kids playground. I’m pretty sure they don’t have those in Syria.

This cartoon is not about Alan Kurdi. It’s about something much more important. Charlie Hebdo is saying something here.

There’s another cartoon in the magazine:


It’s a Jesus-type figure by way of Dr. Seuss, and he’s walking on water. The caption indicates that Christians walk on water. To the right? A child head-first in the waves, with the corresponding caption indicating that Muslim children sink. The meaning is clear. Christian Europeans, with their holy upbringing, saunter upon the waves, and even the deaths of Muslim children don’t affect the relative scale of their divinity. This isn’t about the death of Alan Kurdi, it’s about the way that the western world has turned a blind eye to this horrible situation. This is satire.

Only I don’t know what satire is anymore.

I saw these cartoons and thought to myself that, had I any ability to draw at all, I would have sat down and scribbled some doodles of masked terrorists happily ransacking a newspaper’s office, executing people at will. Because that’s satire. And it would clearly be a statement on the implications of an imperialist past that has directly led to a group of dissatisfied, easily-pliable people who have been sucked in by extremism. My imaginary drawing would be a statement about a statement about a statement. You only have to untangle those layers to get what I’m shooting at (so to speak). Right?

Three days ago was the anniversary of September 11th. If I drew people falling out of the burning towers with holes in their parachutes because the fabric was sewn in a sweatshop in Bangladesh that subsequently burned down, I would be making a comment on consumerism, right? I could be. And if anyone’s offended? Just satire. Don’t worry about it.

Alan Kurdi’s not a human being anymore, because he’s dead. And now, he’s a cartoon. If anyone ever has the temerity to ask you if there’s an after-life, point them to the above images, because there is one. There is one for him. Alan Kurdi lives on, a point to be made, a statement that can be used to shock us into awareness. Because that’s all this is – the audacity to utilize what moves us the most deeply, in order to sponsor us to some kind of action, and if not that, at least some kind of realization. I get that.

But I’m puzzled, and saddened, that we have taken to such extremes to move each other along to a better place – the one where we can maybe feel like we should help the refugees flooding out of Syria (and other places). That we’re so bloody hard that satire itself isn’t the appropriate word anymore for this kind of thing, the one where we need to show dead children in a cartoon to feel anything anymore. This is about showing the hypocrisy and apathy of Europe as a crisis spins out of control. And it’s satire. And it’s free speech. And we’ll say that that little boy has a voice after all, that his death has accomplished something good. I hope it does.

And all we have to do to make it happen is draw a cartoon showing a little boy drowned in the water. That’s all. It’s like nothing. And it’s just satire.

ADDS IDENTIFICATION OF CHILD Paramilitary police officers investigate the scene before carrying the lifeless body of Aylan Kurdi, 3, after a number of migrants died and a smaller number were reported missing after boats carrying them to the Greek island of Kos capsized, near the Turkish resort of Bodrum early Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2015. The family — Abdullah, his wife Rehan and their two boys, 3-year-old Aylan and 5-year-old Galip — embarked on the perilous boat journey only after their bid to move to Canada was rejected. The tides also washed up the bodies of Rehan and Galip on Turkey's Bodrum peninsula Wednesday, Abdullah survived the tragedy. AP
Because this is not enough of a point.
Dream hard, rage hard.

46 thoughts on “This Isn’t About the Death of a Kid

  1. I can’t really comment on the content of the cartoons, not knowing French or possible other stories the cartoons make references to, but to me, the last photo – because it’s real – is infinitely more shocking and disturbing than either of these two cartoons based on it. As long as the cartoon or a joke doesn’t mock or celebrate the kid’s death, but uses it as a statement to mock something that caused that death, it is, to me, legitimate satire. Your proposed cartoons about terrorists shooting at cartoonists actually do exist, by the way, mostly in response to the Charlie Hebdo attack, and weren’t considered to be distasteful at the time. There may even be cartoons about people falling out of WTC windows on 9/11.

    1. What if the cartoon is just meant to sell newspapers?

      I’m sure equally distasteful cartoons exist about those other things. I’m sure of it. They don’t do anyone any good either.

  2. They call it freedom of speech, I call it hate literature. I literally cry every time I see that picture of the little boy, Trent. I am fine with that for it shows a real situation. From that point, anyone who uses that image for purposes beyond is guilty of hate as far as I am concerned – and should be charged and prosecuted. It does not and should not play a supporting role to any other concept – it desensitizes us to the horror of it – it makes the image pedestrian when what it really is is the loss of our humanity and with it a precious life that was totally vulnerable and dependent on us to protect him and we, as humans, failed him. That image is the ultimate statement of our failings and sin. And it should stand alone – never. ever second to any other concept and never to make any other point. .

    Very important post Trent. Thank You.

    1. I’m with you Paul. I can’t handle that photograph. It’s way too much for me. As you say, the ultimate statement of our failings and sin – but good fodder for selling ink. And thank you Paul, as always. You have a way (as many do here) of reaffirming my faith in the whole lot of us.

  3. Speaking of Mecca…do you know who’s doing even LESS than the West? Who should be more ashamed of themselves than Europe? The wealthy Middle East nations. Kuwait, Qatar, our back-stabbing pals, the Saudis do NOTHING to help their fellow Muslims. The Saudis write checks and let someone else deal with the crisis AS USUAL. The fact that they all have to flee to the West is another humiliation for the Middle East that will be used as fodder by extremest.

    McDonald’s is having their Annus Horribilis. People are turning away in droves. Don’t feel bad for them. It was a good run.

    1. Saudis and Syrians are mostly Sunnis too, right? I don’t get that they wouldn’t be helping. I don’t really get anything about this. Well, the world is a vampire, sent to drain…

      So when the inevitable alien approach finally occurs and our extraterrestrial friends hang out in orbit judging us, I think stuff like this is what they’ll hang us on. Fortunately, we have Emily Haines (lead singer of Metric). I think she can possibly make this all right, balance it out with her awesome tunes. Seriously, that’s all I got…

      1. Funny reply. “The Day the Earth Stood Still” was on TMC the other night. Aliens sent to warn us if we don’t turn from our violent ways, the earth would be turned into a cinder. Seems we’ve become a thread to galactic peace. We sure have.

        1. My friend, if it comes down to it, I’ll choose to spend my last days in your city. Look out for a streaking madman with a jar of marmalade. The aliens will never see me coming.

  4. Some how, none of the “satirical” pieces I’ve seen worked the way they were intended to (to me). That’s not just because I don’t do French or because of any other language barrier. It is the original photo that I can’t get out of my mind. It is real and still has the strongest and most powerful affect on me. I do think that we have become a desensitized people and that the lines between satire and poor taste have become extremely blurred.

    1. I think it’s because they’re not satire anymore – they’re stretching for something, some interpretation of truth, that I think we’ve already seen. Satire, I think, reveals something, but I’m not sure it’s effective when that revelation is already clear. At some point, it’s satire for the sake of satire, at which point it loses its value in my opinion. It becomes meaningless, or worse, just a guise behind which to hide as you try to sell more product.

  5. Hi Trent – Can tell you feel passionately about this. Yes, it’s free speech, but the cartoons are deplorable. And I agree in hoping something good comes from this child’s death. So how do we be the change? I have a friend who recently took in a family of 5 – relatives of her Syrian husband who fled the conflict there. My neighbor right behind me just did the same with 2 nieces. I know the U.S. can do better, and hopefully we will. I also just spoke to the mom of a rower, a good friend of my son, who is now attending MIT studying international development, and is interning at an NGO called Mercy Corps. I know there is a lot of suspicion surrounding relief agencies, but she said this one is one of the best. I can’t speak on it myself, but she is confident with the monetary support she gives to this agency to help with this crisis. Thanks for bringing attention to this – it’s getting worse every day.

    1. Yes, I think they’re in horrible taste, and in my mind speak to a spark of black that’s in us. I hate that. I hate that people are trying to profit over this, in the guise of saying something meaningful that’s clearly already been said. I do hope things get better, rather than worse every day. I can’t imagine how satirizing a dead child makes anything better.

  6. I read this earlier and have so many conflicting thoughts. Sadly, death has become a spectacle in our world. News like this is meant to shock but it’s also meant to sell. The more blood, the higher the ratings. The more tragic the story, the better. Violence, death and destruction are entertainment. I suppose it’s been that way for a long, long time.

    Humans are strange – we are very good at becoming consumed by anger and greed or the thirst for money, fame or power, but we seem to easily bury our compassion, our respect for another life. Or we see something horrible and say, “Oh, that’s sad” then go back to eating our Big Macs. People have become commodities.

    I understand the reasoning behind the point that we can’t turn a blind eye and that’s why we should see this drowned child so we will finally “take action” (whatever that action might be). But I am curious how his father feels about his son’s lifeless body being used for this purpose. Is he even more devastated by it or does he feel it’s a necessary evil to wake people up? Of course, I don’t know how I’d feel, but if that were my son’s body in that photo, seeing it over and over again like that washed up on the shore all alone while someone is snapping photos, I can’t even imagine the anguish. Every time I see this boy I just want to reach into the photo, pick him up and hold him and cover him in a loving embrace away from prying eyes. At the same time, if he were my son maybe I’d want the world to know what he went through, who he was and why he died. Because he was my son, a soul I loved and respected, not a commodity.

    I watched tributes to 9/11 on TV last week and they showed people falling from buildings to their deaths. I’m a very compassionate person and I watched that willingly. For me personally, I wanted to understand what people went through that day and not forget. But why do we need to see these horrible things? Should we see them? What are we getting out of it? Pain? Sadness? More suffering? But it’s what really happened that day so we should see it, right? But they are people. Dying in front of us on video. What’s simply a news story and what’s entertainment? We need to draw a line somewhere.

    1. I hear you. I just want to be in the photo. I look at it and just imagine that he’s sleeping, or unconscious. Can’t possibly be dead. I’ve seen his father on the news, and the anguish there is beyond imagining. Having kids myself, I can’t imagine… I think if we were the ones in this situation, we would indeed have a different view of what’s okay. Maybe we’d remember that compassion is as heavy a thing as anger, greed, money, fame, power, the ability to make people angry, the right to sell a newspaper. Or many of them.

      There should be a line, and while I don’t know where to draw it, I feel it. And I know we each draw that line different, place it in its own orbit, see or ignore it as we will – but this just crossed an important line for me. I feel that, and I find it hard to muster respect for the contrary opinion – although I’m trying.

  7. What a world we’re living in. We all need to have an infusion of compassion. Sadly what we get are more and more infusions of ice water in our veins, hardening our hearts.

  8. Random rambles:

    I saw the picture over someone’s shoulder, the first time I saw it– just a glimpse. I said, because I thought he was injured, “Why isn’t anyone holding him?”
    They said, “Because he’s already dead.”
    And the only thing I could think was… “So? I still want to hold him. I want someone to be holding him.”

    There is a poem by Robert Frost, “Out, Out–“, written (as I was taught) based on a too-short obit for a child who lost his hand and bled out. The last line settled into my heart completely… “No more to build on there. And they, since they were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.”

    I don’t know what any of that means about anything. I guess I’m just saying that picture hurts my heart, and looking at it makes me feel like that is my child, and I am angry/sad/heartbroken… and seeing the comic makes me angry all over again, even though it is “just satire”.

    And maybe as long as it makes people angry, we’re still doing alright?

    1. Well, I think you just got me close to tears… why isn’t anyone hold him anyway. That’s right, why not… I would. I’d pick him up, even though I know he can’t feel me.

      But too often we do turn to our affairs. And sometimes, we do so while linking back to the people for whom there is nothing more upon which to build… because we can use that. Use them. Gone and forgotten, but useful to those who remain.

      I’m with you. That photo hurts my heart. The subsequent fairly malign use of that photo to absolutely add nothing to the conversation makes my heart angry. I spend a lot of time being angry. It feels okay, if I’m honest. It’s okay to be angry about things that are wrong. I don’t think it’s okay to exploit the tragedy.

  9. As a mother, I find myself wanting to scoop up that poor child and hold him. The horror he must have felt as his last memory. The wonder of why…should be on all minds and hearts. And then the angry person in me wants to scream– where is the damn accountability in this world? The fucking mutual respect– humanity. Im going to refrain from anything further because I’m afraid you will think I’m a big jerkwad.
    It’s just one big hot mess.

    1. I hear you Audra. I’d pick him up if I could. I know exactly what it’s like to pick up a kid that age and size – what it feels like. Exactly what you expect to feel when they put their arms around you.

      I’d never think you’re a jerkwad, you know that. I think you’re A-1 humanity at its best – in fact, I know it.

  10. Thanks for writing and sharing this. I think the problem is that we (the proverbial we meant to generalize for the entire world) just get numb by these never-ending tragedies. I know I am and sometimes I’m a little slower to react to these things than at other times. So, too, I struggle with identifying this as the tragedy that I ought to pay attention to and do something about.

    What about the on-going tragedy in Sudan and South Sudan? What about the tragedy of the Gaza Strip? What about the tragedies that occur in our own backyards? What about … well, I could go on and on and on.

    There comes a point when I just want to stick my head in the sand and say you know, we can’t possibly take on every tragedy that occurs in the world. It troubles me that other countries in the Middle East do so little about this … they have barely lifted a finger to do anything about the Syrian civil war, or to stop the spread of ISIS, or to do anything about the refugee crisis caused by those two events. If they will do nothing, why should we? Yes, there are times when I can be a cynical, isolationist bastard.

    But some are different. Is this one of the different ones? I think maybe it is

    1. It never quite ends, does it… I don’t lift a hand to do much about the suffering of people in our First Nations, and they’re just around the corner. We have poverty-stricken parts of North America, well within reach… I wonder if the people in the rest of the world look at us and ask why we’re castrating them for inaction when we’re hardly doing much ourselves for our own kind.

      I’m not cynical about this though. In my line of work, I come up across people who are making things better. They don’t necessarily have the loudest voices or the most media time, but they’re there. I don’t think we as a species are naturally inclined to kill ourselves, and at some level (maybe from an evolutionary one?) we understand that and try to do better. The constant barrage of negativism is how we’ve allowed things to be shown to us – it’s a heaping helping of blather that appeals to us, I think, because little of it directly touches us. I think the stories of tragedy actually make us feel good, because it isn’t going to happen to us, not likely anyway.

      But I still have a hard time with these so-called cartoonists. I think they’re a specific kind of scum.

      1. It’s not just the cartoonists though. The level of tastelessness that is allowed as part of the “civil” discussion continues to rise. Much like the tragedies that we have become immune to, we are also becoming immune to the lowering of standards regarding how issues should be presented, discussed and debated. The best example of this currently is Donald Trump … that he remains a viable candidate after the many things he has said over the last couple of months. It just keeps getting worse and people keep applauding him for it.

  11. Such a good post… make us think… no matter how much we don’t want to. The problem with satire is that it gives immunity to be ghastly and cruel under the guise of humor. That should be okay when I make fun of Trump and Cheney. I mean, I see what they were going for, but using horrible pictures of real life tragedy is a fine line. If it makes people change their mind or help to change a bad situation is fine, like those adds with pictures of starving children and abused animals that are always on TV. But we get oversaturated and stop paying attention. But the point they were making is too obscure. This was to show how clever and cutting-edge they can be.

    1. I agree with you, people use satire and the concept of free speech to excuse their other interests. I think satire at some point just stops being satire – and what is it anyway, compared to compassion? I think one of those things is a basic human need; the other is an entertaining gimmick, maybe an important technique to expose our frailties at times, but can sometimes be used as a shield for other purposes.

      I agree with you, these guys just think they’re too clever and too cutting… but I think they’re just exposing themselves as dicks, and this subverts anything meaningful they may have to say. The kid died. We saw the photo. And we understand. These douchebags with their hilarious cartoon are a disgusting wart on the some dark, stench-ridden part of the rear end of the truth. Can’t even see it from where I sit.

  12. I hadn’t seen the Charlie Hebdo issue you reference here – and now that I have, I am so overwhelmingly angry. I’m all for freedom of speech, and I think I get satire, but… come on… What kind of insensitive prick creates this (and what kind of insensitive team of pricks approves it and allows it to publish)? Shaking my head in disgust.

    1. I can imagine the editorial room… hey, remember that kid that died? If we throw a cartoon of his dead body on the cover, no telling how much attention we can get… fantastic stuff. It’s bad enough with the crap that’s happening in Syria, all the injustice, and people can’t think of anything better to offer than a hollow attempt at satire that rings completely false.

  13. that made me tear up… he went too far… that photo should never have been taken. What disgust I feel for those who did. I feel like they desecrated his little body. His poor father, that just rips my heart out. I know you have a son, can you imagine? the cartoonist should be fired. It’s like he stole his innocence. That makes me crazy…… get a fucking sniper rifle kind of crazy….

    1. I can understand the photo. It shatters me. Having a little boy myself, it’s just too much to absorb. But I get the photo, and sometimes we do need to see… but I think the essential point’s made in that photo, in the reality it portrays. I think the cartoonists are douchebag opportunists who are being controversial in the name of being controversial, the point be damned. I can’t see a single valid point they’re making beyond exploiting a little kid’s death. The point was already made. What revelation are they bringing to us? What was their point? I don’t think they had one. I just think they’re obnoxious, poor human beings, and I offer them nothing but spite. I want people to be better than this. Just like I want us all to be better about the issues behind the original issue – but I don’t think these prick-level cartoonists care about that either.

      1. I think all of the media have sunk to slime level… that was beyond disgusting. They had no reason whatsoever… other than greed. Off to hell with them!!!!!
        on another note… have a great day, my friend! go hug your little boy!!! 🙂

  14. This makes sad and sick at the same time. I can barely look at the photo. And your absolutely right? Do we need a cartoon? Are people that hardened? On the other hand, with the cartoon we have this post of yours to talk about it, to continue thinking about this. We just need action. There’s always suffering but when you see it at the hands of innocent children, and there’s a lot of that too, it should make you stop and want something different for this world.

  15. I know the world has already moved on from Alan Kurdi, unfortunately, but for what it’s worth, I’ll chip in my two cents. I barely speak any French, so I can’t say much about the nuance of the language used and how much it changes the impact of the cartoons.

    I will say that most of the time online I try to by funny. (Humor is a very individual thing, so some people think I succeed and some people think I don’t! That’s fine.) My blog is all humor — basically nothing but a string of jokes. I’m quite willing to attempt satire too.

    But there are some things I will not joke about. Even for the purposes of satire, I just cannot find anything remotely amusing about the death of a child. My only reactions when I see that photograph are a) wanting to cry and b) wanting to punch whoever is responsible. The trouble with b, though, is that to an extent we all are.

    Anyway, as I say, this is just my take on it.

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