The Media’s Unfair Obsession With War-torn Syrian Children

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The photo you see above is quite possibly one of the most well-known and widely-seen photos of 2016. A Syrian child, pulled from the rubble left behind after a government airstrike, quietly sits in an ambulance awaiting attention. His stoic nature and the lack of cries, tears, and worry juxtaposed with his clearly devastating injuries gives the viewer an eerie feeling. It begs many questions, but one of the most common is “What are we going to do to stop this?” This photo was published and seen well before the election of Donald Trump and the Syrian chemical attacks on Khan Sheykhoun that prompted President Trump’s Tomahawk cruise missile strikes against a Syrian government airbase. Well before and ever since the above photo was seen, we, in the West, have viewed countless images and videos of the limp bodies of children, covered in dust and blood, carried away from rubble that never seemed unique, but has now begin to look all the same. One would think that there was a greater reason for our exposure to all of these pictures of Syrian war victims. With the recent Syrian chemical attack and the Trump missile strike, a debate was ignited anew in the public realm. Pundits from both parties railed on about whether Trump’s strikes were too much or not enough. Protests warning of the folly of war ran in opposition to hashtags and emotional appeals for the US to “do more” to stop the Assad regime from slaughtering civilians. It seems as though the pictures of dead children had finally done their job: shock Americans into conversation. Unfortunately, this conversation centered largely on the supposed humanitarian responsibility the United States had to help end the conflict. A number of news outlets even reported that Trump’s missile strikes were the result of an appeal by a saddened and horrified Ivanka Trump. Don’t get me wrong, humanitarian issues deserve a great deal of importance given the United States’ role as world superpower and global political leader. The issue here is that the media focus for humanitarianism centers on one specific tragic conflict while neglecting the many others that exist today. This is a problem because, in terms of humanitarian impact, each of the horrendous conflicts going on around the world differ only in size and the people they effect. If you were to examine two or three different conflicts, you might find a dozen different reasons for addressing one and not the others. But if you are only looking at the humanitarian impact, what could possibly drive someone to think that one civilian under the constant drumming of war is more worth saving than another.

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Ukraine (RT)
A refugee child from South Sudan feeds on food supplements at a health centre at the Kule refugee camp in Ethiopia's Gambella region
South Sudan (Newsweek)
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Yemen (NPR)

These aren’t even the worst photos from any of these conflicts. I show them here not to castigate people for caring about Syrian children. The fact that Syrian children and refugees have become ubiquitous across the news media landscape while none of the victims of these other conflicts is a symptom of a much larger problem in the United States today. We only want to debate the easy things. News programs can’t fathom a deeply profound and thoughtful discussion on the geopolitical impact of intervention in Syria, so they default to the emotionally jarring but easily acquired disaster porn. Thus, the debate isn’t really tough at all. Either we save the children or we don’t. This explains why you don’t know about these other victims. See, if you had to argue for why we should save the children in Syria, but not Yemen, South Sudan, or Ukraine, it might beg some of these difficult geopolitical questions that the American public and news media seem to hate. Of course Syria is the Herculean humanitarian disaster of our time, but for us to seemingly base the importance of the conflict on children’s faces rather than statistics, geopolitical outcomes, and feasibility is unfair considering there are many sad faces around the world that could use just as much saving.

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