"I pretended not to have seen, I pretended not to have heard because I didn't want to be responsible."
- Adalbert Lallier
The picture above came to mind as I read this article on the controversy caused by viral pictures of a drowned Syrian child, barely more than a baby.
It's a picture of Buchenwald Concentration Camp post-liberation; the well-dressed folk walking by the stacks of dead bodies are residents of Weimar, the centre of culture for Germany where Goethe and Schiller worked and lived.
Weimar is a short drive down the hill from Buchenwald. The smoke from the crematorium chimneys would have been visible from town. The gunshots would have been heard. More than that, inmates were transported through town. There was no way the people of civilized Weimar could not have known something inhuman was happening on the hill where Goethe took walks and thought.
Yet clearly, these people were disturbed and horrified by what they saw in Buchenwald, when it was right in front of them and impossible to avoid.
They couldn't pretend they didn't know something was going on next door to them, hidden behind the birches.
"I can recall back in the '60s and '70s when we would see photos like this posted in newspapers regarding the Vietnam War," he says.
"We simply now have media that can reach more people and it's becoming more difficult for people to avoid seeing them."
The most famous example of these Vietnam War pics is at right. The girl in the picture, Kim Phuc, is now a Canadian Citizen. Her napalm scars remain.
Pictures like that have an impact that statistics or sound bites can't. We're looking at real people, moms and dads, sisters and brothers, seniors, children - like anyone's family. And the people in these pictures are enduring horrors that are uncomfortable to see.
We don't like pictures like this. They make us feel despondent, or angry; they may even give us cause to worry about what the future holds for our own children.
Isn't it great that we can make that unease go away by reminding ourselves we have our own problems and our own solutions? Or by making a donation to a cause and then comfortably changing the channel knowing we've done our part?
Thing is, there should be save venues, known venues for this kind of gruesome communication to happen; the news, which can be avoided, or magazines with marked pages that can be skipped over. Other people's tragedies have no place in the Facebook pages or Twitter feeds of the nation - that's a bit too much like suggesting that world and our world are one and the same.
That really makes us feel uncomfortable.
I've been to some corners of the world where bad things happen on a regular basis, where poverty and the consequences of poverty are dire. Of course, being a Canadian, I don't need to travel far - there are First Nation reservations where conditions are pretty bad. There are even communities and buildings in our big, civilized urban centres that reflect conditions that would make us feel uncomfortable to see in a magazine.
The truth is, we are as wilfully blind in our own way as the people of Weimar were in theirs. We can tout the wonders of free market capitalism and talk about how it's improved the whole world, skirting over marginalized workers in places like Bangladesh that hold the free market pyramid up.
We can point to federal missions or donations or the loss of Canadian soldiers in places like Afghanistan and say "we've done our part, the rest is up to someone else."
This dead kid? Honestly, it sucks to be him, but it's his parents' fault he's dead, no one else's - right? Or bad luck to be born into a war-ravaged region of the world, but that's their own problem to solve - isn't it?
As Westerners, we have a ridiculous amount of power that we neglect to use. We can shape the policy of our governments - not resort to picking platforms and pitches sold to us. We can stop buying products from companies who's practices overseas we dislike, and encourage good corporate ethics as a result.
We can decide to be allies to peoples in need in various capacities, and we can accept the risk that comes with such actions as taking on a small portion of the burden they should not have to carry alone.
But no one can force us to do these things. No one has the power to persuade us, if we choose not to be persuaded.
At present, we lean towards laissez-faire engagement as a global citizen, despite holding the power to change everything by the choices we make.
Online, in person, through our efforts, our conversations and our consciousness, we are the message.
Right now, the message isn't particularly comforting.
If pictures of dead children bother you, great - that means you're human.
When the medium is everyone and what we choose becomes the message, all of these seas of troubling issues will eventually wash up against your shores.
What are you prepared to do to help keep future children from suffering the fate of starfish?