When telling the right from wrong turns impossible, alarm bells should start ringing


Tiina Vaittinen

Over the past days, there has been a lot of discussion about a picture of a boy. A dead boy. Lying lifeless, face down in the sand, on a beach in Bodrum, Turkey. We now all know his name too. Aylan. And we know different versions of a story of the last minutes of his life, allegedly told by his father, mediated to us through various news agencies across the world.



I don’t have to link these stories here, since the links are abundant in your Twitter, in your Facebook. And I actually think we do need to read them – if and when we feel we need to read them.

We are watching people die at the fences of our homelands, and we are all at loss on what we should do. If it means clicking open a (profitable) news story about the faith of a boy, his elder brother and mother dead at the sea/fence, his dad in Turkey now returning to Syria, and aunt in Canada urging Syrians not to try their ways to Europe anymore, then be it.

Who is anyone to judge, what is a right thing to do, when you have to watch people dying – and there seems to be nothing you can do.

I also do not have to post the picture of Aylan here (anymore). Reading this, you can all see him, lying there. Just lying there. Dead.

I don’t have to show that to you. Not anymore. We have all seen the image of his body by now, and there is no way to unsee it. And there should not be.

There has been a lot of important discussion, whether anyone should have ever posted that picture, or pictures of similar kind (also here). Or what we as academics should do next. People have defended their choice to share the image, while others were provoked to write something equally important, and informative.

Why Aylan’s image had such a media impact when images of a black African toddler drowned in his diapers, or a woman in her scarf some days earlier didn’t, is another discussion, irrelevant for what I want to say now. (Though please do remember, none of this is only about Syria. None of this is only about Aylan.)

I myself have not posted Aylan’s image directly in any social media (though it was embedded in the link to a petition worth signing). I did, however, post another image of the similar kind, showing a girl of my daughter’s age, just lying there, on some beach somewhere, like Aylan.


Like thousands of bodies of human beings over the past years. Dozens each week.

How many today?

Posting an image of the body of a dead girl, I knew it was a morally questionable thing to do. Yet, I did not know, what else was I supposed to be doing, when people in my country focus on debating which municipalities should or should not house asylum seekers, and how many exactly are we responsible for. When my fellow citizens organise demos with banderols telling asylum seekers to “**ck off!”, when MPs in our parliament “declare war against multiculturalism”, and the spokesperson of a government party calls those crossing the Mediterranean “surfers for a better standard of living”.

When in another EU member state, asylum seekers are identified and registered by writing a number on their arms! When in Budapest, asylum seekers step onto trains that they think are taking them to Germany – only to be driven to nearby camps, against their own will.

Wake up Europe!! What the hell is it that we’re witnessing now?!

Have you ever thought how it was possible for the German people to allow for the Holocaust to happen? Over the past weeks, I have thought about  that a lot. As International Relations scholars, we actually know quite a bit about the developments that led to the Holocaust. We might even be able to argue that the German people were – at least partially – accountable for doing nothing, for letting it happen.

We, too, are accountable. For those bodies that we bear not to watch. Who just lie there. On the beaches of Europe. Dead.

The common argument against sharing the images of the dead bodies of the drowned, is that it is a breach against their humanity. We need to respect individuals, even and especially when they’re dead. I agree.

I also find it distressful that there is a lot of profit made, by news agencies for instance, as the images circulate in the cyberspace.

Click, click.


Yet, when posting on my Facebook a pic of that little girl whose name I do not know, lying dead at the shores of the Mediterranean, I was thinking: Could the Holocaust have been stopped, if the world would have seen the pictures of Jews in concentration camps earlier? Could it have been stopped, if people saw the bodies piled up?

In the Mediterranean, the bodies are not piled up.

They are lined up. In body bags. Every fucking week!!

That is not humanity! Humanity in the European border policies is long gone!

So yes, I do think we need to debate about whether or not sharing an image of any dead human body is morally justifiable. We do need to consider that long and hard, each and every time we face such a choice. But I cannot believe we are actually facing such a choice! In fact, I think the moral dilemma resides also with those who choose not to share. Who choose not to show the image that might just be the shock we need to make a difference.

This is not an accusation against those who choose not to share these horrific images. Neither is it a defence for us who have chosen to do so. The thing is: There are no right or wrong answers here! No points to be shared for moral supremacy, no judgements to be made. For people die there, by the fences of our homelands, with or without anybody’s judgement.

The bodies on the shores of the Mediterranean are perhaps the ‘bare life’ which can die without a judgement. They are the homines sacri whose death in the borders of the European Union now – yes, right now – forms the very fuel of sovereign power, for the EU and its member states.

The thing is: For our governments, the lives of these people stopped mattering long ago, in the numerous decisions where legal routes of entry to Europe were gradually closed.

The humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean operates like a zone of indistinction where, perhaps, the usual rules of humanity no longer apply. Indeed, the very dilemma of whether or not to share an image of a dead child’s body arises, because we are there too.

As citizens partially accountable for our governments’ policies we, too, stand in that liminal zone of indistinction, where – suddenly – it may seem right to share an image of a dead child’s body on the internet.

I know, it is insane! To share an image of a dead child’s body on your Facebook page! It is truly immoral – while simultaneously it may also be the most moral act to do.

When telling right from wrong turns impossible, and the two become indistinguishable, alarm bells should start ringing. Loudly.

People drown, in the Mediterranean, because putting a foot on the EU territory is the only legal means to apply asylum in Europe.

The only way to stop the drowning is to open up legal routes of entry to Europe, by utilising the humanitarian visa and allowing applications for asylum to be filed without having to physically enter Europe.

As long as this is not done, it is the EU policies of closed borders that leads people to travel under unsafe conditions, to be smuggled, to suffocate in trucks, to drown in the sea.

You may be reading this in a zone of indistinction, where the right cannot be told from wrong. This, however, is not a hopeless space. It is not a stagnant space. It is not an apolitical space where things could not be changed. But it is a space, where we are accountable, as we watch bodies wash ashore.

If you agree, please click here, to sign an open letter from academics to the European decision makers, to urge them to fix the policies so that people need not drown anymore. So it’d be possible to tell the right from wrong again.

[The image on the top retrieved via Google image search, with term ‘liminality’, which lead to this site: http://www.otakuelite.com/database/video/anime/-hack-Liminality/overview/433.info%5D

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