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Moral injury and the recalibration of priorities

  • 18 September 2015

French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has stirred controversy over cartoons depicting Aylan Kurdi. Theirs are not the only such illustrations that have drawn offence over the past couple weeks.

On the surface, this speaks to the contest that usually attends icons — who owns them, what the bounds of propriety are, and whether they can be used for other purposes.

But it also makes for uncomfortable reflection on the scales of offence and sensitivity. Which is truly deplorable: the image of a drowned child as political (actually pro-refugee) provocation or the fatal inertia around the Syrian civil war and the rise of Daesh that has indubitably contributed to the humanitarian crisis?

More than 8000 children had perished in the Syrian civil war by April 2014, little Aylans and Gilips and Sabeens and Amiras.

The 12,000 additional places for Australian permanent resettlement on offer for refugees from Syria and Iraq is little more than one percent of the anticipated Mediterranean crossings for this year and the next. It does not account for those who will remain in camps in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and in our own detention centres, nor those fleeing conflicts in Central African Republic, Eritrea and South Sudan.

The hard truth is that body of a three-year old refugee cannot be a holy relic, as if it were untouchable and profound. It is unadulterated sacrilege, a profanity that we should be spitting at our leaders. This is what Charlie Hebdo has done.

Of course it also worth pondering how much of our grief and outrage over such deaths is performative. Must fury, despair and grief only be appropriate when personal consequence or loss is involved? What is the point of being miserable over things we cannot control?

I was wrestling with these questions when I came across the concept of moral injury. Clinical psychiatrist Jonathan Shay coined the term to refer to those aspects of combat trauma that are not addressed by post-traumatic stress disorder.

PTSD is usually associated with triggers — when particular situations, words and sensory stimuli provoke distress, fear or paralysis. These are instinctive reactions to perceived threat, which are honed on the frontline but are incompatible with other environments.

Though moral injury can coincide with PTSD, it arises from different factors: witnessing, learning about, failing to prevent, or perpetrating acts that transgress deeply embedded moral values. It constitutes a betrayal of personal beliefs, inducing feelings of guilt and shame, as well as loss of