The haunting images from Syria moved me to action

The media has a right - and even a duty - to publish graphic images.

What do you do when you see a picture of a toddler with his hands tied and his throat cut? A week ago on Saturday I was scrolling through the #Syria hashtag on my Twitter feed when pictures of the Houla massacre started coming through. That night I looked at many of them. I shook, sobbed but I kept looking. 

I’ve seen worse in the days since then: video footage not of dead children but of dying ones. A young boy, his throat slashed, appears to be dead but suddenly gasps for breath. Someone gently, so gently, undresses him. Another gasp, Then silence. A chubby baby in a nappy, bleeding from stab wounds, screams in agony. The screaming goes on and on. A tiny newborn lies still in its blanket, then gulps for air. Is still again, for a long time. Another gulp. But weaker now. 

There is enormous controversy about whether the media should publish this kind of material. In this country, they don't; last week’s Times front page showing a close up of dead boy was exceptional in every sense, but it did not show the physical destruction of a child’s body wreaked by shells, bullets and knives. That was left to Martin Fletcher’s extraordinary accompanying words  - and to read his simple description of the children’s corpses was to shudder and despair. 

But nothing he or I write conveys the violation of a child’s body slashed and stabbed and smashed that an image can sear into your understanding of what one human being can do to another.  Pictures and footage of Houla's dead and dying children - and the many others killed before them - can be seen on YouTube and via Twitter, and I think people should sometimes choose to look.

I look out of respect, because that child felt terror and pain; for me, to look at that image - or watch footage of their terrible dying - is to begin the process of attempting to acknowledge what they went through, to fully know that until minutes before they had been laughing and squabbling and refusing to eat their tea just as my children do, and to value the incalculably precious life that has been stolen from them. 

The media in some countries runs this kind of material as standard, and it leads to charges that people become inured to the horror of violent death. I’m sure that’s the case. The impact of the Times’s front page derives from the rarity of using such an image so prominently. I imagine the team which put that page together agonised about whether to go with that picture, or to use of the more graphic ones, or indeed to show an image of a dead child at all. 

In this country, we don’t face the prospect of being killed in our own homes and streets. We rarely confront the prospect or consequence of violent death. Our unfamiliarity is a privilege - seeing it occasionally, though it’s nothing like living it, makes others’ pain harder to ignore. 

My pain on looking is, by comparison, of no relevance - except, importantly, in terms of what such feelings might galvanise me to do. Looking - and choosing to keep looking - at this kind of image must prompt action, else it becomes not only emotionally devastating but ultimately pornographic and disrespectful.

I've not known what to do for months now, but last Saturday night, I knew I had to do something or I would always be ashamed.

On Sunday 10 June, at noon till 2pm, the 'Stop Killing Children' protest will be held outside the Syrian embassy, 8 Belgrave Square, London. Please join us. Bring your kids. It's not enough. I don't know what is. But doing something must be better than doing nothing. And without me seeing those pictures, this wouldn’t be happening.

Follow protest updates on #stopkillingSyrianchildren and on the Facebook Event page (which includes some of the type of imagery described in this column)

Protestors chant slogans against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as they carry a mock coffin. Photograph: Getty Images.

Louise Tickle is a specialist education and social affairs journalist.

Ellie Foreman-Peck
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Martin Schulz: could this man bring an end to the reign of Angela Merkel?

The German Eurocrat is the biggest threat to the possibility of a fourth term for Merkel. 

At first sight, Martin Schulz looks like an unlikely political saviour. Thin of hair and thick of waist, the 61-year-old was a member of the European Parliament for 23 years and its president for five. In an anti-establishment age, it was predicted that Schulz would struggle when he became the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) candidate to replace Angela Merkel as the German chancellor in January. Instead, he is spearheading a remarkable revival in his tribe’s fortunes. On 19 February, for the first time in a decade, the SPD polled above Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), attracting 33 per cent to their 32 per cent. The SPD vote share has increased by 12 points in a month. The cause is clear: “Martin mania”.

For months, it was assumed that Merkel would secure a fourth term as chancellor in September’s federal election. The SPD, the grandfather of European social democracy and Germany’s oldest party (it was founded in 1863), had polled as low as 19 per cent. After forming a grand coalition with the CDU in 2013, Schulz’s party was marginalised as Merkel claimed credit for policies such as the country’s first minimum wage. Voters defected to the far-left Die Linke and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. The SPD’s future looked to be one of managed decline.

Sigmar Gabriel, the party’s leader since 2009, stood little chance of supplanting Merkel as chancellor. As a result, like François Hollande, he reached for the pearl-handled revolver: he announced his intention to step aside on 24 January after internal SPD polling showed that Schulz would perform significantly better against Merkel. “It was not an easy decision but I’m convinced it was the right decision,” Gabriel told reporters. His judgement was vindicated as public polls gave Schulz an 11-point lead over Merkel (49-38).

The German chancellor’s apparent unassailability owed less to her strength than to her opponents’ weakness. Eleven years after she entered office, voters had grown weary of Merkel’s leadership but saw no viable alternative. In Schulz, they have found one. Having been engaged at EU level and held no domestic office since standing down after 11 years as mayor of the north-western market town Würselen in 1998, Schulz has been embraced by voters as a relative outsider.

Unlike his SPD colleagues, Schulz can criticise the CDU’s record without appearing hypocritical or feeble. He has attracted voters with a centre-left emphasis on redistribution and social justice. “When people see that their taxes are used to give their children a future, they buy into it,” Schulz has said in interviews.

The European Parliament has been a useful platform for his pugnacious style. He is best known for being compared to a concentration camp guard by Silvio Berlusconi in 2003 and for his interjection in 2010 after Nigel Farage branded the then EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, a “damp rag”. Schulz retorted: “It’s not right that this man should be able to trample over the dignity of this house!”

Voters have warmed to Schulz’s personal story as well as his political history. He was born on 20 December 1955 in the village of Hehlrath, North-Rhine Westphalia, to a policeman father and a homemaker mother (he is the youngest of five). Rather than going to university, he trained as a bookseller and was a promising footballer. Two severe knee injuries ended his playing career at the age of 18 and he sought refuge in alcohol after falling into depression. Having contemplated suicide, he recovered to open a bookshop in his home town (which he ran until he became an MEP in 1994) and has been teetotal since 1980.

Schulz educated himself by devouring historical fiction (his favourite writers are John Steinbeck and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa) and retains the restlessness of an autodidact (he often works 18-hour days). His bonhomie and blunt manner appeal to voters who regard Merkel as aloof.

That Schulz has come to the SPD’s rescue is unsurprising. He joined the party at the age of 19 and became the youngest mayor in North-Rhine Westphalia when he was elected in Würselen at 31. After more than two decades serving the EU, the attractions of a return to domestic politics were obvious. “People must look into your eyes and see that you are a bloody streetfighter,” he remarked in 2013, as he presciently dismissed Ed Miliband’s electoral chances.

Schulz has disoriented the Christian Democrats, who failed to anticipate a centre-left renaissance. In a mark of how much he has unsettled them, the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has denounced him as a Trump-like populist for his slogan “Make Europe great again”. Were Schulz to replace Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to be elected French president, the pair would unite in seeking to impose punitive Brexit terms on the UK.

For Germany’s Social Democrats, the fear is that Schulz’s surge has come too soon – voters could swing back to Merkel and the CDU before polling day. But after years as an emblem of centre-left malaise, the SPD has momentum. Schulz is determined to prove that there are second acts in political lives. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit