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The tragic photo of Alan Kurdi should move us into action

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Photo: Takver/flickr

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The image itself is searing. I won't reproduce it here. By now it has become refugee porn, and the poor kid needs to rest in peace. Maybe I'm old-school that way, but we should be moved by such images into action, not sententious rhetoric. Yes, a picture may be worth a thousand words. But sometimes it's just cheap emotional shorthand, like teddy bears at makeshift memorials. We always run the risk of gourmandizing on these things, feeling good about feeling bad. Aren't we empathetic? Oh, yes.

Images can, however, drive a narrative, awakening all of our senses that are too easily anaesthetized by print and second-hand reports. Perhaps that's one reason the Harper government cruelly refused to permit 100 severely injured Gazan children to be brought to Canada last year for medical treatment. As Gerald Caplan notes, "It would be far harder for the Harper government to maintain their twisted interpretation of the Middle East in the face of 100 Gaza children whose burns, amputations, disfigurements and other appalling injuries were all inflicted by Israel." I wonder if a single photo might have produced the widespread public revulsion then that we are presently feeling.

The histrionic columnist Terry Glavin broke the "Canadian connection" story -- in more ways than one. A relative in Canada, as it happened, had been trying to sponsor the brother of the man whose children and wife were drowned, but the bureaucracy was so unfathomable that she eventually gave up. Through her MP, a letter was hand-delivered to Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Chris Alexander, who apparently did little or nothing with it. A professional journalist would have checked out the actual contents, but Glavin marred his big scoop by failing to do so. Here it is. Whoops! Wrong family.

But never mind. There was a Canadian connection, all right, even if not the one he thought; and enough of one to make the heart-rending photo personal, which accomplished his aim. It brought home to us that bureaucratic obstacles in the way of succour, deliberately imposed by the Harper government, are frequently insurmountable. And that obstruction produces countless casualties among fleeing and desperate populations, who remain an amorphous mass until they are granted faces.

Alexander quickly became the lightning rod for our anger and revulsion. It was easy, because -- let's not varnish this -- he had already proven himself to be a despicable human being. The issue then quickly opened into a spate of long-overdue reflection about our current official attitudes towards asylum-seekers. Passionate and righteous voices were raised. Facts and figures about our niggardly refugee policies began to emerge into the public mind.

The Harper government's lead-footed response to the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War has come under its proper scrutiny, and in the midst of an election campaign, too. We quickly admitted 60 thousand Vietnamese boat people, thousands of Ugandans and Kosovars, and many other displaced persons over the years. But Syrians have arrived at a glacial pace -- probably only a few hundred to date, although it has proven impossible to get precise figures from the tap-dancing Alexander or his department.

There is a not-so-subterranean bigotry underlying this sloth: the government has made it clear that it wants Syrians from religious minorities only. So much for the 74% Sunni majority in Syria, under ceaseless deadly assault by the anthropophagous Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, and so much for those Sunni Muslims among the more than four million Syrians who have managed to flee to nearby countries.*

Harper isn't alone in this, mind you. There's lots of that sort of thing around. Just read the comment threads in the Toronto Sun and elsewhere in Conservastan for word from his yokel base.

Under popular pressure catalyzed by that photo, however, all parties are now nervously talking about admitting lots more Syrian refugees. In fact there's a numbers auction going on. So far, though, it's talk. Better than indifferent silence, but not by much.

Let's get to it, then. No more foot-dragging, no more religious discrimination, no more deliberately-created blockages, no more bureaucratic paper-chasing.

Time to kick out the bloody jams.


*This is a clarification of the original text, which referred to "non-Muslims." Harper has just reaffirmed that "religious minorities" will be prioritized.

Photo: Takver/flickr

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