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Why I tweeted the photo of the dead Syrian toddler

A paramilitary police officer carries the body of a child that washed up on a beach in Turkey after a boat carrying Syrian migrants sank while trying to reach Greece on Wednesday. (DHA via AP)

He looks as though he is asleep — perhaps taking a nap before running off to play with his friends. But he’s not asleep. He’s dead. He died because of a war the world can’t or won’t solve and immigration policies that say: We don’t care.

The photograph of the drowned little Syrian boy who washed up on a Turkish beach (the image is not included in this post but is available here) has gone viral on social media, turning him into a symbol of the suffering of Syrians and their desperate scramble to escape.

[A dead toddler becomes the most tragic symbol yet of the Mediterranean refugee crisis]

He had a name, Aylan Kurdi; he was 3; and he came from the Syrian-Kurdish town of Kobane.

On Wednesday, I shared that picture on Twitter without thinking very hard about it. I saw it on a Turkish news site and was profoundly overcome. Instantly I received a huge response, mostly from people who said they, too, were deeply moved by the image.

Some people, however, criticized me — and those retweeting me — for sharing the picture at all. One said: “It is also a little boy. For f---’s sake allow him some dignity.”

This response puzzled me. What, exactly, in this context, is “dignity”? How many photos of dead Syrian children show up on social media every day? Don’t people know what has been happening in Syria?

And then it occurred to me — perhaps they don’t.

[A broken family: The father and relatives of the drowned Syrian toddler]

My colleagues and I have been writing about Syria’s war for four years, about the desperation of the refugees who fled the country and the 250,000 people, including children, who have died over the course of the conflict. Some of us, Syrian and foreign journalists, have died, too, trying to tell their stories.

Yet it has seemed that no one really paid much attention — at least, not in terms of seriously trying to solve the problem, seriously trying to help.

If it takes photographs of dead children to make people realize children are dying, so be it.

Unlike most of the photos I see on a daily basis of maimed and bloodied children whose bodies have been torn apart by bombs, this one was hardly gruesome.

[Hungary's leader to migrants: 'Please don't come.']

A video showed the waves lapping against his tiny body, as though even the sea was paying respect. Instead of swallowing him, never to be found, it carried him gently ashore and deposited him on the sand — where he would be found by other people, the only ones who can do anything to stop this from happening in the future, to other children.

There are some signs that the picture is making a difference.

On a scale of one to bigoted, Britain had ranked high on the question of refugees. Today, however, almost every British newspaper splashed the photo on its front page, and calls are intensifying for a more compassionate approach to those desperately seeking new lives away from war.

It has all made me wonder whether our squeamishness over depicting dead bodies is misplaced. Perhaps people really don’t understand that this hugely brutal war is going to have hugely brutal consequences from which parents will inevitably try to protect their children. That sitting in a tent for the duration of a conflict that U.S. officials have repeatedly warned will last decades just won’t cut it for parents who want not only to save their children but also to give them a life.

Perhaps if we had been bolder about publishing photographs of all the children who have died things wouldn’t have reached this point?

I’m going to end this with another image of a dead child, a video of a father who can’t bear to let go of the body of his daughter, who was killed in a shelling attack. I defy you to watch it and not be moved. I tweeted that video three years ago, but it had little impact. Perhaps because you can see blood; more likely because it was happening in a far-off place, a country people struggle to place on a map.

Children have been dying every day since the conflict in Syria began — an average of seven a day, a total that exceeds 10,000, according to human rights groups — and nobody has taken much notice.

Read more:

Britain takes in so few refugees from Syria they would fit on a subway train

Why the language we use to talk about refugees matters so much

As tragedies shock Europe, a bigger refugee crisis looms in the Middle East