Warning: The following post may be troubling for some readers.
I’ve been struggling with my thoughts and feelings about that viral image of Oscar Alberto Martínez and his daughter Angie Valeria, who drowned in the Rio Grande in an attempt to reach a better life. I’ve cried bitter tears as I’ve reflected on the various aspects of this story, and I cannot look at the photo without feeling them come again. I weep not just for such a senseless loss of life, but also because we know live in a country where the lives of those seeking terrible conditions are viewed as expendable, just another outrage, to be chewed up and spewed out and left behind by the relentless media machine.
I’ve also struggled with the ethics of showing (and viewing) the image. On the one hand, I completely agree with those who argue that the nonstop sharing of this image serves to repeatedly traumatize the communities of color who are already feeling terrorized by this administration and its actions. There is no question that we as a culture do not publicize white bodies in nearly the same way as we do bodies of color, and it is true that the visual exploitation of black and brown bodies has a long, deep, and vicious history in this country (lynching is but one example of this grisly phenomenon). We should always be conscious of this when we see this photo, and we should demand more sensitivity from our media outlets when it comes to publicizing the deaths of minorities.
On the other, I also believe that it is important that this image be shared, that it call us all to account for what is being done in our name. For, like it or not, it is our elected officials who are allowing this to happen. It is our elected officials, particularly the Republicans, who are responsible for their deaths. If nothing else, it is my hope that this image will convince us of the need to get people, particularly young people, motivated to get out to the polls and vote. If we have anything less than absolutely phenomenal turnout, then we will have only ourselves to blame if deaths like these, as well as the continued imprisonment of children in what have rightly been called concentration camps (or, for the more squeamish, detention centers).
The more I gaze at that image–and trust me, it is incredibly difficult for me to do so–the more I feel its ethical pull on me. There’s just something…wrenching, I suppose you’d say…about it. Though their faces are (blessedly) not visible, I still feel part of me break every time I look at them, their legs so neatly in line, as if they merely waiting to be awakened. I feel the life that no longer inhabits those bodies, and my mind cannot help but imagine, with an almost unbearable clarity, the terror of their final moments. Their bodies, though no longer alive, call to me, and I yearn, with a bone-deep ache, for the ability to save them.
One would think that the sight of such an image would touch at least a few conservative hearts, or at the very least would call forth the empathy and embodied sympathy that is so much a part of the Christian experience. But, alas, such does not seem to be the case, for many Christians on the right, adopting a pose similar to that of Jeff Sessions, seem to believe that because “those people” attempted to come here illegally, that they are to blame for their fate. Not only does this conveniently ignore and misstate the facts–that seeking asylum is perfectly legal–it is also a fundamental betrayal of the injunction to hospitality and compassion that was such a key part of Christ’s message to this fallen world.
Of course, it’s also true that we live in a world where Trump, the ostensible leader of the free world, reacted not with empathy but with blaming as soon as he was asked about the image. It still boggles my mind that our president is a man so utterly devoid of any streak of human feeling or emotion that he cannot even utter a single coherent sentence that does anything other than continue to cast blame. Is this really the best that we can do as a country? Don’t we deserve to have as our leader a man who heeds the call of empathy, of sympathy, and of common human decency?
It’s hard not to feel a sense of despair at the evidence that we now live in a country where regarding the death of a father and his daughter fails to ignite absolute outrage. If, as Adam Serwer noted in The Atlantic, the cruelty is the point, where does that leave us? What hope is there for a country where so many people can look at an image of a father and daughter who drowned trying to reach a better life and find within themselves nothing but a renewed hatred for the stranger? We can, and we must, expect and do better.
If anything, these tragic, needless deaths are a potent reminder to us that we need to do everything we can to sweep these monsters out of office in 2020. And I’m not just talking about the presidency, though obviously getting Trump out of the White House is absolutely vital if our democracy and our country is to survive. I mean that we need to get Republicans out of office wherever they are found. If we, collectively, have any desire, any desire at all, to see our republic restored to some semblance of its past goodness (however flawed it might have been), then we must all do our part to heed the call of that image. We must all reach inside of ourselves and recognize that part of ourselves that responds with embodied sympathy to the pain and suffering of others.
If we do so, and if we act to make that sympathy a part of our politics, we might just be able to remake our politics. If not, I fear for the future. And for our collective soul.