The horror worsens with every detail that emerges. Migrants are locked below decks, graded by nationality and by the amount they have paid. The people smugglers herd their cargo at gunpoint, as if in some grisly re-enactment of the Atlantic slave trade. One Somali boy even told reporters that some of his friends had been pushed overboard by the traffickers.
You can’t read of these abominations without becoming emotional. And plenty of people seem to feel that that’s all they need to do. Events of this kind turn us into Helen Lovejoy, the Simpsons character who rushes about demanding “Won’t somebody think of the children?” But, in truth, we can hardly fail to think of the children: it’s programmed into our DNA. When infants are drowned on one of these hellish craft, it’s a pretty safe bet that every sentient adult who hears of it is upset. That’s the easy bit; it’s coming up with a solution that’s trickier.
Before sketching out what such a solution might involve, let me make an unpopular point. The movement of people from Libya to Italy is not primarily a British responsibility. Our capacity to influence matters is limited by geography as well as politics. You could argue, I suppose, that if we made it harder for sans-papiers to enter the United Kingdom, we might slightly tilt the calculus of advantage, and so fractionally reduce the number of people attempting the crossing, but this doesn’t seem to be what the Mrs Lovejoys have in mind at all. They want us to be responsible – or, rather, to be culpable. Some even manage simultaneously to blame us for intervening in Libya and for not intervening in Syria. Rule One: It’s Always Our Fault.
Perhaps it’s human nature to over-estimate our own agency. But the people primarily responsible for these atrocities are not British politicians; they are the criminals in Tripoli who run the smuggling gangs, one of whom has been caught on tape chuckling about his overloaded boats. No amount of handwringing in Britain will deter these mobsters, sheltering amid the shards of a failed state.
For the Mrs Lovejoys, though, it isn’t about the gangsters; it isn’t about solutions at all. It’s about showing everyone what nice, caring people they are. Tweeting your outrage is a much easier way of doing this than, say, working in a refugee camp. The writer James Bartholomew has recently come up with an apt label for the phenomenon: “virtue signalling”. That phrase neatly encapsulates our generation’s elevation of the moralistic (holding the correct opinions) over the moral (doing the right thing). I hope it becomes a Twitter staple, a standard riposte to those who think they prove their compassion by hating the right people.
What, then, ought we to do? It’s often sensible, in these situations, to learn from others’ experience. Australia recently faced similar problems: creaking boats attempting to reach its shores any means, sometimes with tragic consequences. The prime minister, Tony Abbott, took the view that, if would-be migrants knew that they would not be able to land in Australia, the numbers attempting the crossing would fall, and the tragedies would become less frequent. And you know what? He was right. Some Australian Mrs Lovejoys shrieked in protest, and some are still shrieking, but there is general support for what Mr Abbott calls “the most decent, most compassionate” solution – one that rewards law-abiding immigrants rather than allowing the people traffickers to determine who enters Australia. In the aftermath of the most recent tragedy, Mr Abbott offered Europeans some advice: “The only way to stop the deaths is to stop the boats.” Put like that, it’s hard to argue.
Of course, Australia is even more remote from the crisis than Britain. We, too, can offer help and advice, maybe even send a naval vessel, but, ultimately, it’s the Mediterranean countries that will decide what to do. My advice, for what it’s worth, is to change the rules so that it’s possible to return boats safely to their point of departure. Only then will people stop attempting these dreadful crossings.
Saying so isn’t #virtuesignalling, of course. But, for the permanently angry Tweeters, this isn’t about the welfare of the refugees. It’s all about them. It always is.