Heartbreaking images from Syria, so numbingly familiar
They pull out the phone, maybe fumble around with the camera, and add another memento to the family photo album, as a consolation for the slippage of time and a reminder of how precious routine life can be.
It’s the sort of snapshot that loving parents all over the world take every day.
The boy in the pink sweater is Jad Allah Jumaa. He is from eastern Ghouta in Syria.
Are you worried about him yet?
You won’t be alone if Ghouta doesn’t ring a bell. A besieged rebel stronghold near Damascus, population 400,000, it is where the forces of President Bashar Assad, dropped chemical weapons in 2013, crossing President Barack Obama’s notorious “red line” that turned out to be no line at all.
The shells, missiles and barrel bombs are still falling, exacerbating some of the war’s worst carnage. Cease-fires go unheeded. The White House is distracted.
It’s hardly news that compassion fatigue, like outrage fatigue, is epidemic these days. Throughout Syria’s civil war, Syrian state media has tried to discredit child videographers in opposition strongholds and the photographs bearing bloodied bodies from Ghouta’s bombed-out buildings, claiming the suffering is staged. Crisis acting is not a new concept perpetuated only by conspiracy theorists in America.
Such attacks on truth continue to betray unspeakable inhumanity. But the bigger threat to decency now may come from our own normalizing indifference to these images. Once upon a time, Syria was a beautiful, cultured country. Today it is a shambles, and many of us have turned away.
At one time, images from Syria galvanized our attention. A couple of years ago, drone footage of the Mashhad area in Aleppo went viral. A neighborhood of apartments and homes where people had recently cooked, prayed, made love and gone to school became indistinguishable from Berlin, 1945, or Grozny, 2000. Neighborhoods incubate hope, I wrote back then. That’s what strongmen like Assad, who turn their armies on their own people, are trying to extinguish.
But now, Ghouta looks like Aleppo. Photographs of fractured silhouettes of bombed-out buildings blend together. This leveling is Assad’s triumph.
Photojournalists have deployed a familiar toolbox of artful devices to distill these panoramas of destruction down to human scale, particularize the war and speak to a wider public. There’s the trope of the grieving mother cradling the dead son that recalls a Pietà, the wailing grandmother with her arms spread, like a Crucifixion, the hero rescuing his family, like Aeneas at Troy.
Syrian photographers have produced some remarkable images. But novel photographs in the midst of brutal airstrikes are not easy to make.
Many Syrians, as an alternative, have tried to reach out on their own, circulating videos on social media of their pleading children, speaking directly to camera, cutting out the middlemen, breaking through the art and artifice.
“Please, save us, thank you,” said Bana al-Abed, a young Syrian girl, who became passingly famous for the videos her mother posted to Twitter from eastern Aleppo, where Syrian government and Russian forces bombed them out of their home.
Then these testimonials became ubiquitous, too.
Philosopher Avishai Margalit has distinguished the journalist or historian, who passes along evidence of evil and suffering, from the “moral witness,” who endures evil and suffering firsthand, like the Syrians. A moral witness sustains hope that some “moral community” is out there to receive and be moved by this evidence. Bearing witness is a shared process. A public chooses to join that community or else opts out of the moral loop.
It is not that we aren’t still sometimes stirred by images of bloodshed and horror. When a terrorist plowed an SUV through a crowd on a bridge in London last year, The Times published a photograph of a woman being tended to as she lay in a pool of her own blood.
Some readers were appalled. “Where is her dignity?” wrote one. “It’s an unforgivable intrusion.”
The Times routinely publishes even more harrowing images from Africa and the Middle East, without similar reactions.
Was it that the woman on the bridge was white and the victims in the pictures from Africa and Syria are black or Muslim?
Or is it that what’s happening in Syria, year after year, just seems impossibly remote and hard to fix? We mourn when a single whale gets caught in a net and dies but throw up our hands at climate change. The scale of suffering in a place like Ghouta seems almost too big and painful to grasp. The incivility, the breakdown of government, the endless noise — they’ve also taken a toll.
There’s an argument that coarsened culture requires even more gruesome photographs to rouse our numbed humanity. It’s what some advocates for tougher gun regulations contend about graphic images of school shooting victims.
At a news conference in the White House Rose Garden after a meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan last year, President Donald Trump said it was his horror at images of “innocent children, innocent babies” that led him to reassess his approach to Syria.
Maybe we need to stare at a simple, everyday family snapshot to remember what binds us. Like that one of Jad Allah Jumaa.
He was 1 1/2 years old when he died on Feb. 21 in an airstrike on eastern Ghouta. He was wearing his pink sweater.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
MICHAEL KIMMELMAN © 2018 The New York Times
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