Our Fading Sense of Humanity (and How to Get it Back)

Photo: REUTERS/Stringer

Do not look away. I know it is tempting, and I know it is also utopic to think that this image will escape its inevitable fall onto the depths of oblivion… But still, do not look away, not just yet.

Stop, breathe, and think for a moment about the combination of pixels that is sitting in front of you, before dooming this conglomerate of digitised colours and patterns onto the junk drawer of memory.

Challenge yourself to face this image, even if just for the duration of this article.

Why Should I?

You should not have to look at this picture. This photograph should not be in front of you right now. This portrait of Death should not even exist to begin with.

Photo: AFP

You should have seen a photograph of Óscar and his daughter somewhere on Facebook, as people often do when they stumble upon random stranger’s profiles on social media. You should have seen Valeria’s little arm wrapped around her father’s neck, on a sunny day at the park while posing for a portrait, smiling from ear to ear. You should have not seen that same arm, enveloping that same neck, on the shallow banks of the Rio Grande where they lay deprived smiles, with no expressions at all, for their faces no longer belong to the realm of the living.

So, you should not look at the photo, but you have to. As much as Óscar and Valeria should not be dead, but have very little choice over the matter now — even less of a choice than you do.

Okay, I have to look. But what am I looking for?

In a nutshell, our common sense of humanity… But not as an empty slogan that you can slap on a hashtag and sell some notebooks at Paperchase, though.

Humanity here meaning your acknowledgement that Óscar and Victoria were, in every respect, as worthy of being alive as you are; As deserving of living relieved from pain as you are; As entitled to find a way out of economic hardship as you are; As integrally Human as you are.

Your sense of humanity, once you find it, will be a feeling that jolts you out of your chair at the realisation that the only thing stopping you and your loved ones, from lying motionless in a shallow watery grave is the geographic lottery of birth. Or the (just as sobering) parallel implication of that realisation: If Óscar and Vitoria were bearing your birth certificate, they would probably be random faces on Facebook, smiling and wrapping their arms around one another lovingly, like so many of your own friends and family do.

But let us not fall on the trap of reducing our humanity to a simplistic matter of geopolitical realisation. Because it is not.

Stare at this photo once more: have you been tempted to start rationalising the steps that brought both father and daughter to their final destinies?

If the answer is yes, then your sense of humanity needs to be reassessed, for if you think (even for a second) that it was Óscar’s desire to cross the river that resulted in their demise, you are wrong.

Photo: Julia Le Duc/AP

If you lack the clarity of thought to realise that, if Óscar and Vitoria had been in the possession of a different piece of paper, they would have been allowed to live… Then your sense of humanity is probably gathering dust in some dark and distant crevice of your soul. Because the truth of the matter is simple: If the worth of a heartbeat outweighed that of a paper, they would have been able to cross a bridge safely in search of a better life.

Look at that picture, take your time, soak it in. And realise that hidden under those waters are two faces that could have been yours and of your loved ones.

But, this is a sadistic and voyeuristic exercise.

It is not. It is a socio-political exercise.

It is a cliché by now to say that no human being is illegal. But such self-evident truth is more than an overused set of words. In spite of their debatable utility, borders are born out of fertile imaginations. Imaginations which conceived the concepts of nation states, of rules of law, of social structures.

I am not attempting to question the validity or merits of such concepts, though. Like everything in life, there are good and bad sides to literally everything under the sun, especially when it comes to human constructs that became reality by withstanding the test of time.

Nation states are a reality, and it is beyond the scope of this article to challenge or analyse their validity in any significant form. Countries exist, their delimitations — imaginary or not — exist. But that does not have to automatically reduce people to the conceptual equivalents of viruses or vermin when attempting to transverse borders.

The value of our joint humanity should be upheld above, and in spite of, the concept of a nation state. If we arrived at a point of our joint existence when we have to stop and think, before deciding whether someone should die for crossing an imaginary line or not, then we are suffering from some undiagnosed mental illness.

If someone stopped you in the streets, took a piece of chalk out of his pocket, drew a line on the floor and told you he was ready to kill you if you dared to cross said line… You would not label that person as being in the possession of his full mental, or emotional, faculties.

But I digress… My point is that Óscar and baby Valeria’s deaths were ultimately avoidable.

The difference between Valeria having a childhood or a tiny coffin rested on the hands of policymakers brainwashed to believe that the amorphous concept of a nation is worth killing for. But if said nation is worth its weight in children’s caskets, then we need to hit the reset button.

Such rebooting is not equivalent to a revolutionary act though. There is no need for bloodshed nor regime toppling. The only thing one needs to do, as mentioned above, is to recuperate one’s sense of humanity, and then reshape the imagined nation state to accommodate for human beings and their inherent right to Life and Dignity.

In countries fortunate enough to have democratic foundations, regardless of how flawed, the majority of individuals still have some power to force Civil Servants to Serve society in a Civilized manner. And I think we can all agree that offering human sacrifices to the ‘Gods of the Nation State’ is not the most civilised thing to do.

Óscar and Olivia happened to have died in the US, but unfortunately, they are simply the ambassadors of a global tendency; One that sees the lottery of birth as the ultimate factor in deciding whether a useless death over crossing a border is actually excusable or legitimate.

Let us not forget about the hundreds who die trying to reach Europe, or those who are murdered once they get there, for transgressing the imagined and conceptually immaculate line of the nation state. Let us not forget how reminiscent Óscar and Vitoria’s deaths are of Alan Kurdi — the three-year-old Syrian boy who washed up on the Greek island of Kos. Let us try and not forget what we are inevitably bound to forget…

Photo: Reuters/Stringer

Before dooming Óscar and Valeria to the hidden recesses of your mind, just look at them once more.

Photo:Julia Le Duc

Think again about how that tiny arm could have been tightly wrapped around her father’s neck, in a park bench somewhere, while celebrating her second birthday in a few weeks’ time… Now think that because someone values an imaginary line more than Valeria’s life, or any life for that matter, Valeria’s arm only reached for her father’s safe embrace one more time before water filled her lungs, and the current laid them both to rest on the banks of the Rio Grande.

If you looked thus far, do look away now. But do not remain indifferent and do not remain inhuman.

Remember that when countries accommodate to people, they change and evolve, but when people are sacrificed for the sake of the country, they cannot be brought back from the dead.

Observing & Commenting.● MSc Comparative Politics ■ London School of Economics and Political Science《》 B.A. Journalism & Media ■ Birkbeck, University of London