When the scale of a disaster is too mind boggling, too incomprehensible, the eyes takes refuge in a smaller detail, something the mind can wrap itself around.
This footage of the unfolding Lampedusa rescue ending with the disconsolate sobs of a female rescuer have stabbed many Italians like me in the heart - the heart our political class has done so much to harden and coarsen in the ongoing immigration debate.
Here is someone whose life I can sort of imagine, whose language and somatic traits I share, who went out to deal with an emergency as a professional and found herself defeated by the challenge as a human being.
On the same day when the scale of the massacre was revealed and my nation belatedly found the strength and the humanity to shed some tears, I went to the Royal Court theatre here in London to see Routes, a powerful new play by a very talented young playwright, Rachel De-lahay. The play explores the plight of migrants and refugees here in the UK - the dream of escape, the politics of belonging, the lottery of qualifying, of counting, of deserving the application of existing and seemingly universal rights - or not.
The hardest thing in the play for me was the inability of officialdom, in the shape of an otherwise sympathetic and quite reasonable immigration officer (a struggling mother, a poorly paid worker, a jilted wife) to blink this particular category of human beings into focus and see them as people.
After war, civil strife, terrorism and famine, after the ravages of
global warming and droughts and trade sanctions, after perilous
journeys, narrow escapes, unbelievable cruelty and exploitation, the
final blow, the final strike of the malignant wand that turns desperate people into a despised alien mob - to be fought back, detained,
deported, bureaucratically and judicially eliminated - is our profound
inability to empathize.
Aside from a small percentage of particularly dumb Tea Baggers and Ukippers we - by and large - understand the issues, we know facts and stats, we are perfectly able to reason about the whys and whats and the what ifs. We just don't seem to be able to feel what's at stake unless 300 bodies wrapped in plastic can be physically lined up on a western nation's harbour under the gaze of TV cameras.
Aren't these human-shaped bundles now dead because what they escaped from was in itself worse than death? What else do they need to qualify? How exactly is their desire to survive a way of taking advantage of us, the lucky, ageing, First World few? Why should we, by geographical accident of birth, have more right to feel, be seen and treated as human, whether this means not to be tortured or being able to feed one's children?