Just when we think that beheadings and missiles and bombs and political fragmentation and dysfunction are the sum total of the definition of our period of history, the body of a lifeless young Syrian boy washes onto a beach, is caught on camera, lifted from his watery tomb by a traumatized official, and splashed across television and computer screens across the world.
Just when we think that individuals by themselves have no influence, the human spirit is touched by yet another photo of another individual human, Aylan Kurdi, who now and forever symbolizes a tipping point in the world's collective consciousness to a story of such a complicated conflict in Syria, leading to another even more tragic mass migration of refugees both of which seem to overwhelm those charged with negotiating peace and preventing human disasters.
Why did this little boy have to die as a victim of a smuggling ring of opportunism operated by thugs?
Why did his parents have to seek asylum from a political-military-ethnic-terror-religious conflagration whose end is not in sight, nor even in the imagination of world leaders?
Why did the world waken to this specific photo, after thousands, probably millions of similar photos, some even more traumatizing, had already marched across our individual and collective mind screens over the last four years?
Is there some 'trigger' mechanism inside the human community that can and will 'go off' when the pressure of resistance to action, and the complicating rationalizations and excuses and distractions fail to push the refugee story out of our minds and hearts?
Is there also a human spirit that links every human being on the planet to respond with action when our collective conscience is so pricked, enraged, appalled, ashamed, and even grief-stricken in identification with sufferers and their families?
Is the picture of this little boy, and his grieving father, and the burial with his brother and mother in Kobani yesterday enough to push the world into a concerted and sustained initiative that will not only find beds, food, water and work for the millions of displaced refugees?
Or, are we merely assuaging our troubled collective conscience with an outburst of compassion, empathy and caring that will fade in days or even hours, after the groundswell around the world dissipates, subsides and even atrophies?
Are we willing to permit arguments of bureaucratic documentation, bureaucratic bungling, bureaucratic micromanagement to defeat what appears to be a human demand for compassion, for creative and emergency staffing of "processing facilities" and a break in the logjam of starving humans who have been living in refugee camps for months even years?
We are now told that the United Nations Food Program has run out of money to feed the millions of starving refugees living in those camps in places like Turkey and Jordan. Yet, in comparison with the resounding response to the picture of the lifeless little boy, the even more tragic needs of hundreds of thousands can easily slip behind the veil of our instant altruism to 'take in' more refugees.
Homes, churches, even city halls across Canada are mobilizing to begin, or in some cases, continue, their efforts to complete the assimilation process of another wave of homeless migrants, while governments are being pushed by public opinion, public embarrassment and even public anger and shame into actions they were apparently not prepared to take without such public pressure.
One church in Winnipeg has already completed 18 quilts, one for every member of a family for whom they have also prepared the obligatory documents to satisfy the bureaucratic and legal overseers who in turn must comply with their political masters.
Harper persists in focussing on the prevention of terrorists from entering our country and insists that while there are many refugees who are not terrorists, some may find their way through the bureaucratic filtering process that keeps them out. And yet, as we all know, there are already home-grown terrorists operating inside Canada, as bonafide Canadian citizens. And while there is a risk of opening national boundaries to more danger and more terror, there is also the potential upside of enriching many countries, including Canada, with the infusion of energy, imagination, skills and a deep and lasting commitment to their adopting country and community of people whose lives have already been shattered by their exposure to thugs like ISIS and Assad.
The outpouring of collective human emotion is not enough to guide public policy; there is also a significant need for those in power, both elected and civil service, to prepare the assessment process and to execute that process given both the legal requirements of security and the humanitarian requirements for openness, compassion and our national consciousness and identity.
These are not the "Boat People" from Viet Nam. These are not the refugees from Ruanda, nor from Serbia. These are the people from Syria, and some from Africa whose lives have been torn apart by those who would use human victims and targets for their political, ideological, military and religious purposes.
And while picking up refugees from the Mediterranean, and offering water and food in Hungary, and refuge in Sweden and Germany (two of the most receptive and welcoming countries in the current crisis) are all important acts of compassion and empathy, the root causes of this mass migration, the wars in both Syria and Iraq, and the terrorist extremes in those countries and elsewhere, and the general apathy to world events in countries like Canada and the United States, remain unattended and unresolved.
And it is the larger picture, the failure of collective world leadership, including the leadership in our own country, that must be held accountable for failing to silence the missiles and the poison gas of Assad, and for failing to bring the Syrian and Middle Eastern conflicts, including the long-simmering, often boiling-over conflict between Israel and Palestine to a peaceful resolution. Of course, the combatants themselves must be at the negotiating table(s). Of course, the processes will not be either easy nor easily monitored. Of course, the conflicting interests of those combatants will continue long after the guns are silenced. And of course, the terrorists will continue to seek soft spots as both targets and recruits, long after any resolution of the current conflicts have been achieved.
Nevertheless, the pathways to negotiations must be continually explored, tested, rejected when appropriate, and tested again....in a collective human aspiration of bringing the human community to a place where it can and will agree to live in a level of secured and monitored civil compliance with values and rules that respect the dignity and the humanity and the culture of each individual.
Conflagrations of any size will only lead to more burnings, more drownings, more starvings, and more burials....and as we all know both emotionally and intellectually, all participants are losers in the end. Nevertheless, while the process of integrating millions of refugees will take a global effort to assimilate them and given them both life and hope, so too will the process of preventing these humanitarian disasters require the extreme commitment of all governments and political leaders, including especially those leaders who profoundly disagree with their counterparts across any negotiating table.
The world may have begun to mobilize to open their doors to refugees today; it will not be long, however, before the world's collective and united voice demanding action on poverty, the environment, access to work with dignity, access to education for all, including all women, will demand that those in public office no longer hide their heads in the sands of time or denial and take collaborative action on these serious and threatening issues.
And, short-term fixes for political opportunism, like the Chinese shutting down coal-fired factories and removing half of the 5 million automobiles from the streets, just to present a blue-sky photo opportunity to the world on the anniversary of the surrender of Japan at the end of the Second World War, will be seen for what they are: a sham!
And, shams will not, cannot be, must not be accepted as substitutes for long-term solutions to real life-threatening forces.