Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

News, Politics and Dead Children

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Politicians

I just listened to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a follow up report by CBC reporter Nahlah Ayed on the BBC Newshour.  A family in which a father, Abdullah Kurdi, lost both of his boys and his wife as he tried to get them to Europe from Turkey and the grief of the remaining family was featured.  One of his sons has become the subject of worldwide revulsion.  More about that later.

As I listened to the father and his sister crying over the death of the children, and the father’s pledge to put a banana on their graves each day (the children loved bananas), I was thinking about the function of emotional impact on breaking news stories and how politicians gravitate between amplifying and attenuating that impact in their own political self-interest.

When Terry Schiavo was at the center of a life support termination whirlwind in the early 2000s, the conservative elements of the American Congress rallied, along with then President George W. Bush, to try to prevent her husband from disconnecting Ms. Schiavo.  The Congress intervened as the country was embroiled in a debate about what constituted “persistant vegetative state”.  Eventually Mr. Schiavo did disconnect his wife from life support despite what some called the misplaced efforts of Congress.

This refugee crisis issue doesn’t seem much different in that the life of a people and their right to survive is being counterbalanced against public opinion which has again translated into political calculation.  Hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing Iraq and Syria, crossing the Mediterranian, and landing in Greece and Turkey as they try to make it to Germany.  Germany has opened it’s doors to them but curiously, those people are being blocked by Hungary and are unable to reach Germany.  David Milliband, former Home Secretary for Great Britian, told Todd Zwllich of The Takeway today that the United States needs to begin taking more refugees to help reduce Europe’s crisis.

The Newshour’s Tim Franks paraphrased the speech by Mr. Harper addressing the crisis by saying that people can expect many more deaths.  Mr. Harper himself said he has visited a refugee camp and said the numbers of people awaiting transit to Europe stretches into the millions.  That clip, though possibly incomplete, seems to suggest that although there will be more deaths, we should not be surprised by them.  And that seems to be an oh-so-gentle way of beginning the distancing of the political responsibility from the humanitarian crisis.  That he has visited a camp apparently buys him little on the way to being able to actually address its existence.

Europe is hamstrung as to what to do about the flow of refugees, even though the spigot was turned on the moment President Assad of Syria began barrell-bombing citizens he called dissidents and turning a blind eye to ISIS operatives in his territory.  That is what began the flow of people west and north away from the Middle East and North Africa.  And it represents a second catastrophic failure of political will by the world in general.

Injured and dead children are no motivation for change.  Phan Thị Kim Phúc, also known as “Napalm Girl” from the famous photo taken in 1972 during the Vietnam War was nine.  The war raged on for three more years.  And if twenty murdered six year olds at Sandy Hook Elementary School by a gunman in 2012 didn’t affect the politics of guns in one of the most powerful and progressive countries on Earth, the ability of other nations to successfully address their own crisis doesn’t look hopeful.  Maybe it’s a defect in human DNA.  But when babies, like 2-year old Alyan Kurdi, the son of the father mentioned above, wash up on beaches as corpses or disappear beneath oceans because elections, public opinion, budgets and soverignty collide with empathy, resolution promises to be a long, slow, grinding process in which many many, many more will die indeed.

As a reporter, I understand how vile and intransigent politics and politicians can sometimes be.  But as a listener hearing a crying father, or as a reader looking at a picture of a toddler in tiny tennis shoes face down in beach sand, I find me sometimes asking journalism, “What am I supposed to do with this horror?”

Photo by Virginia Mayo of Reuters

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