A truth horrifyingly shown again in the reaction to those gut-wrenching photos of little Aylan al-Kurdi’s body washed up on a Turkish beach.
No one with a heart could fail to have been moved by the sight of the three-year-old lying face-down at the waves’ edge. No one could feel anything but deep sorrow for the anguished father who had lost both his young sons and his wife.
But what was it about Aylan’s death that moved so many where previous images of other refugee tragedies had apparently left them cold?
It’s been suggested that it was because he looked so much like one of our own children – well fed and clothed, the image of a white, middle-class European.
That doesn’t mean we’re all closet racists. Simply that humans of all kinds inevitably empathise more quickly and easily with others who seem like them. Whose lives are readily imaginable.
There is something a trifle spurious in the distinction some papers, and some politicians, are now making between “migrants” (bad) and “refugees” (good). But if it leads to an outbreak of long overdue humanity, perhaps we shouldn’t knock it.
It should be obvious that no one would send their own children to sea in an overcrowded, unseaworthy vessel unless they were truly desperate. And if people are that desperate, it should be the natural human reaction to offer them help. Whatever they look like.
The British government has been shamefully late in catching up with most of Europe – and its own people – on that.
The same applies to some national newspapers. The same ones, in some cases, that have been pulling the heartstrings with words and pictures of little Aylan.
The paper that railed against the “flood” of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany was still at it until last week on the “tide” of migrants supposedly threatening Britain’s shores. Unfortunate metaphors, you might think.
That paper has now switched to a line summed up in a bygone headline: “For pity’s sake let them come”. Though pity, it seems, is still constrained by numbers.
Shamed at last into a response to what is rightly being called Europe’s biggest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, David Cameron talks of offering refuge to “thousands” of Syrians.Which, when clarified, comes down to 4,000 a year for five years.
Or one per thousand of the four million Syrians who have fled the civil war in their homeland, mostly to neighbouring countries. In Lebanon, hardly a rich or untroubled country itself, Syrian refugees now make up a quarter of the population.
But to talk of numbers and quotas is to deny, or avoid, the individual humanity of those involved.
By comparison with the horrors that have been unfolding all year in the Mediterranean region, events in Calais are a minor sideshow. Not for those who are there, though. Many have made harrowing journeys to exchange one type of hell for another.
So I applaud those who have begun collecting and delivering food, clothing and other supplies for their relief. They at least are showing that this country is not as heartless as some of its media and some of its politicians.
They at least know that people are people, not numbers.