At the International Day of Peace in Olympia, Wash., celebrators express their love and sympathy for the people of Syria. Photo credit: Audrey Daye.
Syria, in recent news, has been nothing short of a Shakespearian tragedy. Each act of the ghastly play has escalated in violence and shocked the international community with breaches of international law and human morals. While the headlines convey the gravity of the situation, the media coverage has relied largely on visuals to tell the story.
On August 21, 1,429 people were gassed to death in the residential neighborhoods of Damascus. News sites were flooded with images of the bodies of the over 400 dead children, laid out in rows without any signs of external injuries
But apparently this wasn’t enough to tell the story. Videos were published on news sites and shared on social media showing people convulsing and desperately trying to breathe until losing consciousness as a result of the attacks.
Why have prominent media networks decided to show this content? It’s sensational, that’s why.
As the audience struggling to piece together the madness, the bloodbath and the flaws of the players involved in this play, it became clear that we, collectively, have become desensitized to human suffering. We need sensational material to get us to tune in. This is our tragic flaw as spectators.
Huffington Post writer Susan Moeller terms our condition as “compassion fatigue.” It’s the reason why, according to a survey by Outbrain which tracked traffic data on the Web, Americans viewed pages about Miley Cyrus’ latest antics 12 times more than they did about Syria. It’s why Syria has been relegated in the headlines for months.
Do we really need to see the horrific images and videos in order to feel compassion? Why does reading about a crime against humanity, such as the killing of 400 children in a chemical attack not evoke any feelings within us without seeing gory images? We have overexposed ourselves to the point that we need overstimulation in order to feel something.
Not only are these images sensational, they also further serve the purpose of President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, who are clamoring for support in using military action against the Syrian government. The images prove beyond a doubt that chemical weapons were used, making this the most deadly use of chemical weapons since Saddam Hussein’s use in 1988.
Obama, in one of his more ill-advised acts of his second term, sought public support for limited military intervention. But a war-weary public quickly voiced their opposition. In Seattle, hundreds of demonstrators gathered in Westlake Center to rally against U.S. military involvement.
It is reassuring to see the public take lessons from Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Violence cannot be contained with more violence. It is clear that getting involved in sectarian divisions has only further exacerbated the situation. It only takes a glance at the growing extremism, fractured society, corrupt government and endless war in Afghanistan to know the perilous risks of intervention. Indeed, commentators are drawing parallels with Afghanistan, citing a proxy war between U.S. and Russia and its allies, with the larger aim of keeping Iran at bay.
Americans have been told it’s a choice between dropping bombs and staying silent, but this isn’t the case — especially considering the U.S. is currently involved in the arming and training of rebel forces. We must overcome our compassion fatigue by providing humanitarian aid to displaced Syrians. Our political leaders must be pushed to seek an indictment against the Syrian leaders for war crimes. Assad should be brought to trial in the International Criminal Court.
“This is a war crime and a grave violation of the 1925 Protocol and other rules of customary international law,” said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. “The international community has a responsibility to hold the perpetrators accountable and to ensure that chemical weapons never re-emerge as an instrument of warfare.”
We must seek legal solutions, rather than military ones. If we take a lesson from Afghanistan, we must know that disarming, rather than arming, is the first step toward peace.
Our collective deficiency in compassion is a result of becoming accustomed to the grotesque. We are inundated with images of Middle-Easterners, Africans, Asians and other people of color killed, tortured and involved in violent conflict all over the world to the point that we need the outrageous in order to feel shocked. Conversely, that media censorship comes down hard on publishing images of Americans, particularly whites, who have been killed. This is one reason we can feel indifference toward the former.
“The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones,” wrote Shakespeare. This, perhaps, should be a source of inspiration to bringing peace, and more importantly, compassion, to the suffering people of Syria.