The Consequences of Omran Daqneesh's Photo

Like many people, I spend way too many hours a day online, whipping from site to site, speed-loading stories of mayhem, murder, terrorist attacks, election polls, and sports scores until the informational overload trips a synaptic circuit breaker, and I disconnect.

Though every so often, a story or image is so compelling that I can't disconnect. I have to take it in. Read about it. Think about it. Feel it. That was the case with the image of a dazed, bloodied 5-year-old Syrian boy in the back of an ambulance, the victim of an air strike that destroyed his home.


His name is Omran Daqneesh. And he survived. Which could have given me license to sigh in relief and then shut down. But I couldn't. I couldn't stop staring into his sad, confused eyes. Then — and maybe this is just human nature — I internalized it. What if that was my child? But it isn't, because my children don't live in a war zone. Still, I can't click on something else. So I keep reading.

  • I find a story co-written by Michael Weiss and James Miller on The Daily Beast acknowledging the horror of the war, while conveying, with a world-weariness born of first-hand experience, that these images often lead to little more than the "customary hand-wringing of grief and frustration."
  • Richard Engel reports the story on MSNBC, noting that this is just the latest in a series of horrifying pictures that stir an outcry that something must change, but nothing ever changes.
  • Later, I watch CNN anchor Kate Bolduan get moved to tears as she reports it. Then, the fact that she gets choked up itself becomes a story. It's treated as an understandable reaction under the circumstances. As opposed to the appropriate human reaction to the picture of a wounded child.

But how are you supposed to process horror? If you're watching it on a screen thousands of miles away, you can try to put it in some context.

So here's the context. About 500,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict. About 1.8 million wounded. About 4 million displaced children. More Syrians have been killed or have fled the country than still live there. According to the U.N., cease-fires won't matter. The situation will only get worse.

syrian refugees

I wonder how it could get any worse. Then I remember that Syria is hardly the only war-torn country in the region. It seems, at one time or another, in one place or another, there's always been a justification for murder, whether it's land, money, power, oil, revenge, revolution, or — as perverse as this is — God.

It seems the only political situation that's prevented people from different factions from tearing each other apart has been the presence of a dictator; the removal of a dictator leaves a power vacuum leading to more violence. Even when a movement like the Arab Spring seems to offer momentary hope, somehow a country gets sucked back into the vortex of military rule.

Of course, it many cases violence has been aided and abetted by foreign meddling, when the major powers have propped up some tyrant only to suddenly decide he's too tyrannical and has to be disposed of. And, of course, there are the tools of war, many of which have been supplied by countries that are permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.

Although it's been a major source of conflict in my lifetime, the Middle East hardly has a lock on violence. At this moment, there are wars in about 20 different countries on five continents. In the last century, Western civilization managed to kill about 187 million people.

We also managed to work in a Cold War, during which the U.S. and U.S.S.R. compiled tens of thousands of nuclear warheads and the only deterrent to one side annihilating the other was our "mutually assured destruction," shorthanded into the Strangelovian acronym MAD.

And it is madness. At some point you just have to wonder where we get the guts to refer to what we've got going on here as civilization. Because when you filter out all the names and the players, and the direct and indirect causes, all this homicidal mania turns into one big human clusterfuck in which, ultimately, we're not killing each other, we're killing ourselves.

Whether or not self-destruction is the endgame of human nature, at the moment, it's certainly the result of human behavior. We like to think we're evolving with every new tool or toy we invent. But, for all our cleverness, we can't seem to evolve to a point of nonviolent conflict resolution.

Occasionally, we seem to arrive at something we call "peace talks," although they usually occur after years of blowing each other up. In any case, it doesn't seem as if humanity is on course to act more humanely. Our ability to create more sophisticated weapons of mass destruction has brought us to the era of drone war, in which we dispassionately rain down death from afar. War as video game. We've even invented the phrase "collateral damage" to disinfect the fact that, on occasion, civilians get killed.

Which brings me back to staring at that picture of the little boy in the ambulance. Suddenly it feels like what I'm staring at is the history of human greed, violence, and stupidity reflected in his sad eyes and written across his confused little face.

Fortunately, he survived. Although his older brother, 10-year-old Ali Daqneesh, ended up dying from injuries he suffered in the bombing. Still, I know that, as much attention as I can pay to it, this story will only live on my screens for another few days, then will fade into the white noise of violence. And the band will play on.

So how do you process seeing the face of a 5-year-old child pulled from the carnage of his bombed out home? I have no idea. I just stop, and think, and then write it down. That's what I do instead of screaming.

Ian Gurvitz is the author of "Welcome to Dumbfuckistan: The Dumbed-Down, Disinformed, Dysfunctional, Disunited States of America."