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.