No, you’re not hallucinating, and yes, you read that headline right: the conservative media outlet Breitbart just published an article seemingly trying to discredit the Alan Shenu story. For anyone who has been stuck under a rock this month, Alan was a 3 year old Syrian refugee who fell from his father’s arms during a doomed Mediterranean crossing. A photograph of the toddler’s washed up body on a Turkish beach sparked international soul-searching, with even conservative politicians like David Cameron admitting Europe needs a more humane response to refugees.
However, Breitbart’s James Delingpole has a different take on Alan. He thinks there’s something fishy about Alan and his supposed death at sea. For one, he claimed the photograph of Alan on the beach was “carefully stage managed”. Delingpole substantiated his claim by linking to an obscure anti-Islam blog (though admittedly, no less obscure than THKW).
In his own words, Delingpole claimed, “Drowned bodies do not have their hair flattened against their head, clothes which aren’t disarrayed, or legs and arms lying straight. It also remains a mystery why, if it has been floating in the sea for hours, the boy’s body is so pink.”
Even Alan’s name poses a mystery for Delingpole, who opened his piece with the words, “There’s just so much that doesn’t add up. Starting with the fact that the boy’s name is actually Alan Shenu.” He appeared to be referring to the fact that Turkish authorities initially reported the child’s name as “Aylan Kurdi” and the media ran with it. The idea that the international media may have gotten their facts wrong in a breaking news piece isn’t exactly an avant-garde notion. Yet this isn’t the only tidbit Delingpole had a problem with.
Delingpole also reserved plenty of critique for Alan’s distraught father Abdullah, who lost his wife and two children when the boat they were traveling in capsized while trying to reach Greece. He questioned whether media reports suggesting Kurdi was tortured in Syria were accurate, what country the family was trying to reach, and whether the father really saw his family drown.
After a few paragraphs that reek of an attempt to take a jab at a father that just lost his family, Delingpole stated, “Do we believe this? Any of it? ( [sic]I fell for it myself briefly. Before I started asking questions like: -OK. So Kurdi had his teeth pulled under torture by Assad’s people. Wouldn’t this have been one of the first bits of information he gave to all the reporters who crowded round him hungry for tear-jerking autobiographical details?’”
Why Does this Matter?
If you think I’m going on a rant about some irrelevant right-wing pundit on some meaningless website, you’re wrong. Breitbart has been plugging away for a solid eight years now, and at the time of writing had a respectable Alexa rank of 1099. Moreover, Delingpole’s article followed a well trodden strategy straight from the right-wing play book. This strategy is one of distraction and dismissal, and it’s quickly becoming the center-piece of right-wing responses to any challenge to the status quo, whether we’re talking about refugee rights, racism or a any other social issue where the right-wing is terrified of change. We don’t need to talk about police brutality because Michael Brown was no angel, we don’t need to talk about racism because Trayvon Martin was wearing a hoodie, and we don’t need to talk about record high refugee numbers because Alan’s skin just wasn’t wrinkly enough.
Essentially, the right-wing is increasingly attacking victims of structural violence so they don’t need to face violent structures themselves. This intellectually cowardly tactic aims to distract people with minor details to avoid the real issue. Whether the media misreported Alan’s name isn’t as important as the fact that thousands of refugees and migrants have died on the Mediterranean. Whether the body was moved before photographing isn’t as important as the fact that people have finally started paying attention to the global refugee crisis. Whether Abdullah was tortured is less important than the fact that Syria’s civil war has left around a quarter of a million dead, and more than 4 million people displaced. These issues need well conceived responses, not dismissal on grounds that someone on the internet is not personally satisfied by the angle of Alan’s limbs when he washed up on shore.
Let’s seriously engage issues, rather than seeking to discredit issues by discrediting victims. Because let’s be frank, taking on a dead 3 year old refugee isn’t exactly the height of journalistic bravery.