The Dead in Syria Deserve More

A boy displaced by fighting in Syria attends a class in the governorate of Idlib, Syria. (CNS photo/Muzaffa r Salman, Reuters)
A boy displaced by fighting in Syria attends a class in the governorate of Idlib, Syria. (CNS photo/Muzaffa r Salman, Reuters)

Last week as I walked to the checkout line in Whole Foods after picking up a quick lunch, I glanced at a stack of The New York Times. The picture on the front page was of a handful of people wrapped in burial shrouds. It was strange how peaceful they looked. I had to stare quite hard at it to see whether they were dead or merely asleep. But the part that really struck me was that out of the six people in the picture, there was one baby and three kids probably between four and nine years old. No blood. Not dirty. Just lifeless.

I’ve never had the kind of reaction to a picture as I had at that moment. All at once I was horrified at what killed those people, aghast that it was on the front page of the NYT, but mostly so grief stricken that I had to avoid reading the photo caption or title of the article because I did not want to break into tears in the middle of the store. Then a couple walked past me catching a glimpse of what I was looking at. The man said, “Oh Assad,” in a tone you would use when commenting on a toddler’s silly antics and then kept walking. Anger boiled up in me and for a second I wanted to yank him back to the picture and make him really look at it to give it the proper reverence it deserved.

I get it. You have to show shocking photos to make people understand the horrendous things happening in Syria. (Busted Halo’s® Michael O’Loughlin mentions a lot of the current violence in Syria and other parts of the Middle East here.) I’m as guilty as the next person of being desensitized to news of atrocities happening around the world. I know it shouldn’t take the sight of a dead baby to rouse my conscience. I know pictures like this are published because you want to shake people like me out of their comfortable lives and make them care.

Well, it worked.

But I am upset that The New York Times would print a picture like this. Not because I think it is too graphic and not because it is offensive to people who look at it but because these bodies deserve to be treated with dignity and reverence. After death, the body is still sacred. So sacred that burying the dead is considered a work of mercy (Catechism of the Catholic Church #2447).

Some may say that the picture means they didn’t die in vain. That it will arouse people’s sense of decency and garner support for their cause. Yes, the picture makes clear how desperate the situation is in Syria, but people are just walking by it without a moment’s pause. The idea that all around the world this picture sits in stacks in gas stations, Starbucks cafes, and grocery stores, and is given no more than a fleeting glance or is hurriedly flipped over to get to the crossword puzzle is heart wrenching.

These men, these babies, deserve more. They deserve for us to see their picture and mourn. To double over in grief at the senselessness of it all. To stop for a moment and pray for their souls. To wonder at what the children may have grown into. To care about what has happened or will happen to their families. They deserve at least that.

So that is exactly what I did. I cried, I prayed, and then I started doing some research to try and understand what is going on in Syria and to figure out what I can do to help. It seems there are several things we can do:

  • Pray. A lot. For the dead and for the living. Pray for an end to violence. Pray for peace. Pray for compassionate hearts in those countries that are being overwhelmed with Syrian refugees.
  • Donate to organizations that are trying to help the more that 1.4 million refugees seeking safety outside Syrian borders.
  • Write your congressmen/women urging them to support humanitarian assistance to Syria.
  • Stay informed and inform others of what is happening. Keep an eye on what Pope Francis is saying, as he is closely following Syrian news.

Let us do what we can. Let us also pray for ourselves that we do not become desensitized to violence and death but always respond with grief and compassion. A fitting prayer would be one commonly prayed by Dorothy Day, “Take away my heart of stone and give me a heart of flesh.”

But especially for those in the photo, let us look upon their bodies, pause, mourn their loss, and offer up a prayer for their souls.