A screaming Vietnamese child, her burned clothes torn away, runs along a rural highway toward a photographer. Flash forward: the body of a Syrian toddler, dressed in worn sneakers and a red tee shirt, washes up on a Greek beach.
What do these children, separated by 43 years and half a world, have in common?
Both have come to symbolize catastrophes: the monstrous Vietnam War on one hand, the collapse of Syria and Euro-migration on the other. Both demonstrate the power of images in shaping the consciousness of humankind.
Kim Phúc and Aylan Kurdi are real and their tragedies are their own. But with the click of a camera shutter, each came to represent millions of people swept up in vast currents of history. More importantly, images of these children actually changed history.
Did the terrible knowledge that we were napalming nine-year-old girls end the Vietnam War? No, but the consciousness of our complicity in this and other crimes was part of the process that finally ended our Southeast Asian adventure.
Today we are just beginning to understand the turmoil in the Middle East, but here’s a clue: the disintegration of the Syrian state, still in progress, was preceded by four years of drought. Add more pieces to the puzzle: migration of rural populations to cities as crops fail, political upheaval, blossoming of religious extremism, barrel bombs, beheadings, suicide bombers, boats overloaded with migrants capsizing in the Mediterranean.
Behind all the political drama and individual suffering, this is about climate change.
The Vietnam War was about imperialism. Now we have napalmed our whole planet to the point of environmental collapse. Soon our own children will be screaming in the road. (I sincerely hope that turns out to be a metaphor.)
For us who are hoping for an effective response — such as a greenhouse gas cap and alternative energy investment initiative at the state level — the issue is changing consciousness. Once again, our leaders are committed to business as usual. To persuade them to abandon carbon and create a new renewable energy economy will require a lot of pressure from an aroused populace.
Half a century ago, those of us who wished to express divergent opinions were forced to ‘co-opt the media’ by means of attention-getting behaviors like sit-ins, peace marches, the occasional self-immolation and throwing rocks at ROTC buildings. Today we have some media of our own, like Instagram and Twitter.
For the sake of the Kim Phúcs and Aylan Kurdis of the future, let’s all learn to tweet. And keep a camera handy.