One Day Americans Will Weep about This: A Lament for Syria

Jacob Z. Hess, Ph.D.

Note:  One of the precious characteristics of dialogue is that you can actually SAY what you’re thinking….and maybe even be heard too?!   Back in 2011 when the Syrian people began protesting for more freedom, I wrote an essay entitled, “The domestic violence of Syria is all our problem”; but I couldn’t find any newspaper that would publish it. Heartbroken like so many witnessing what has unfolded, I couldn’t help but return and update the essay after watching Aleppo’s devastatingly predictable and preventable fall. This is dedicated to my brothers and sisters in Daraa, Homs & Aleppo – alive or dead – men, women and children who I will always consider heroes.        

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Statue of Liberty digitally reconstructed from images of bombed rubble, by Syrian artist Tammam Azzam.

One day America will cry at what it didn’t do…just like these neighbors did.

Everyone stood outside in the street, talking in hushed, uncomfortable tones and looking shocked. Yes, they all knew the woman across the street had been in a bad relationship – even a violent one…the screams were so regular that adjoining homes had grown accustomed to them.  But who knew he would take it this far?

I arrived for a visit to this neighborhood right after everyone found out that she had been brutally murdered. It was a poignant, despicable moment that left a lasting impression on me.  And it left me convinced of something specific:  The responsibility for (ending) chronic violence falls on more than just the perpetrator.

Just another American horror movie?  When protesters started getting shot in Syria 5 years ago, the world was alarmed to see people brutalized for merely marching in the street. First it was a handful of deaths in Daraa, then it was 20 or 30 at a time in other places. By that fall, 3500 protesters had been killed (with another 1500 detained and tortured).

We kept watching.

By July of 2013, 100,000 people killed.  And a year later, it was nearly 200,000.

And we kept watching.

Two years later, an estimated 450,000 have been killed – with some estimates higher…not counting the maimed, tortured and others who simply disappeared without any verified death. One U.N. report also confirmed recently that more people have been forced to leave their homes than ever before in recorded history.

As the devastation metastasized, one thing held constant:  Inaction….at least from the Western world.  Iran, Hezbolla, Russia and others mobilized plenty to support their Friend.

Where were we?

Watching on the sidelines.  Refusing to providing any air cover to prevent barrel bombs on citizens, declining to support safe zones, and balking at a chemical weapon red line. No troops on the ground would have been needed. And the international community was ready to follow our lead.

But we couldn’t do it.  We weren’t willing.

The pathetic moment was crystallized this last month as the choke-hold of the Syrian army became secure around an Aleppo, while the western world was relegated to following a 7-year old’s desperate tweets from the epicenter of civilian bombings.

Pricks to conscience.  Every once in awhile, this kind of a moment pricks our conscience. Remember the 5-year old Syrian boy, Omran Daqneesh?  As one author recounted the scene:  “The muddied, bloodied body of a Syrian boy…is carried like a lifeless doll and placed, startled at the world around him, on an orange chair….Covered in the dust of the rubble he’d been pulled from, sitting stunned in the back of an ambulance. …The intrusive camera zooms in on him. He wipes his muddied, bloodied face with his muddied, bloodied hand.”

“We should not be watching this” he added.

Wounded Syrian Kid Omran DaqneeshBut we are – and we have been (on and off)…for years. “The image may go viral just long enough for people to lament the Syrian debacle,” writes a New York Times columnist – “Lament and forget. There’s Donald Trump to think about.”

Describing again the 7-year old girl under fire in Aleppo, another writer adds, “The world sighs in sympathy, and having sighed, moves on.”[1]

Clearly-We-Can’t-Do-Anything.  With colleagues at the University of Illinois and Depaul, I led a research analysis several years ago of how and why citizens feel justified not getting involved to stop ongoing, known domestic violence in their family or community.  Rationales included: (1) Disbelieving the victim (“she must be exaggerating”), (2) Normalizing the violence (“A little conflict is not unusual…”), (3) Asserting the priority of an intact home (“Isn’t keeping the family together still ideal?”) and (4) Framing abuse as a private matter (“It’s none of my business, really”).  Others feared to aggravate and make the situation worse—or simply felt unsure about how exactly to intervene.

It was remarkable to see the number of extensive, overlapping justifying explanations people had that, together, effectively prevented any action. Under cover of these various community excuses, an abusive home often becomes isolated from potential support and accountability – becoming exclusive turf for the batterer to have his way (which is exactly what an abuser wants).

The same patterns are evident in the conversation about Syria, with mounting explanations with each passing year for why we simply cannot or should not do anything. 

On your own. In both cases, victims are left trying to desperately resolve the violence on their own.

That doesn’t always go so well.

Syrians tried to do this – with a courage mind-boggling to witness. These Arabian citizens first marched out in the streets – aware that they could be shot at any moment.  One man, Abu Ahmad said “There is no more fear. No more fear.  We either want to die or to remove [al-Assad].  Death has become something ordinary.”

When Syrian government forces launched bloody onslaughts in response, the citizens were brutalized to the point of taking up weapons.This, of course, became used by the government as pretext for even worse savagery in return, with reports this week of airplanes and tanks bombing residential neighborhoods and whole-sale massacres occurring.

It’s never been a fair fight. In spite of their bravery, the reality is the Syrian people have, year after year, been increasingly beaten and tortured into submission, if not already killed.

The U.N.’s humanitarian chief warned recently about parts of Aleppo is becoming “one giant graveyard.” As one report described whole families being killed, one after another, in the bombardment by the government, quoting a nurse who said “Where we used to bury one man, we lay down entire families now”…“We dig and we dig. It never ends.”

Describing her feelings after surviving the carnage, one woman said, “I feel like I lost a piece of me…I can’t stop crying.”

While admittedly some countries and institutions tried to do something here or there (including the U.S.), many more nations and institutions have found plenty of reasons to Not Do Too Much. Rationales vary:  ‘This is a sovereign nation’s affair – something they have to resolve…we have enough problems of our own.’  Others long insisted on the difficulty of distinguishing good rebels from bad rebels as a non-started.  Still others have accepted some of Al-Assad’s own explanations—‘no, of course we don’t want chaos in the region… it looks like it’s turning into a civil war anyway…if the opposition would just put down their guns..’

Under cover of these same kinds of Good Excuses to Not Get Involved, Syria became isolated turf – “sovereign” and exclusive terrain for incredibly abusive batterers to continue having their way.

In the meanwhile, America kept watching (at least until Game of Thrones started).

“As The World Goes Crazy Hunting Pokemon” one headline describes how Syrian kids are desperately trying to get our attention.

The horror continued for them.  One report recounted an image of a mother, “Fatima Zehra” who “stands in her doorway as her five children cry in the background. The family have endured another sleepless night because of constant shelling.”  The mother isn’t sure what to do anymore:  “The kids do nothing but cry because they are too hungry and afraid of the bombs,” Zehra said. “I have nothing to give for them to eat and the schools are all closed meaning the kids do nothing but stand in these corridors waiting for this hell to end.”

“I found my daughter in the kitchen piling up small bits of stone” another woman said, “She told me she was rebuilding Aleppo. I don’t think she knew why I was crying.”

And we keep watching.

“You know what scares me even more than hunger?” one man said “The international silence. No one has helped us. We are alone.”

And this is the whole maddening point:  The ONLY way for violence to continue chronically is for the people around to agree to not step in.  And that’s exactly what has happened in Syria.

 “We are under attack,” one Syrian doctor said. “We have the feeling that the whole world has abandoned us, left us here in Aleppo to be killed brutally with no help at all. We can’t defend ourselves. We can’t do anything. We can’t protect our hospitals. We can’t protect our lives. We can’t protect our patients’ lives. We can’t protect our families’ lives. It’s desperate here.”

And America keeps watching…

It is wrong.  It is immoral.  (And we’re not talking about Assad here).

 In response to America’s inaction, one Syrian citizen told John Kerry “How can this be accepted by anyone?…It’s unbelievable.”

Nicholas Kristof writes of meeting recently with “two brave American doctors who, at great personal risk, used their vacation time to sneak into Aleppo, Syria, to care for children injured by barrel bombs. They described working in a makeshift underground hospital and their quiet fury at the world’s nonchalance.”

“Sitting idly by and allowing a government and its allies to systematically and deliberately bomb, torture and starve hundreds of thousands of people to death, that is not the solution,” Dr. Samer Attar, a surgeon from Chicago, told him. “Silence, apathy, indifference and inaction aren’t going to make it go away.”

 The Syrian people were never asking to be saved, like in Libya…they were asking to be empowered and protected from annihilation.  They simply wanted to be preserved in their own search for freedom.

And we have refused.

This is not a political statement. People on both sides of the aisle have come to the same assessment. [2]  And for that matter, these are not even “Syrians” (or “refugees”) being ravaged.  They are fellow human beings…brothers and sisters in our human family.

The 50,000 children who have died savage deaths are just as precious as the children in America preparing for Christmas this week.

I stand all ashamed at the apathy of our country.  I have friends who are ashamed at America for other reasons – insisting that we get TOO involved and act too “imperialistic” in the world.  This ideology insists on pathologizes all American intercession in the world.  Perhaps that’s the story that preoccupied President Obama – and quietly pressed him to stay aloof.

 To all them, I ask sincerely: Isn’t it an American value to stand up to bullies?  To protect the innocent?  

I know many of them would insist:  “But America IS the bully.”  My libertarian friend once said, “tell me ONE time when it was helpful for one foreign government to interfere for another?

Umm…the French helping us in our own revolution to win our precious freedom?

The American republic would not have come to pass were it not for the material support of the French army in our behalf.  As Kristof wrote “This is a crisis that cries out for U.S. leadership.”

And we haven’t been there.  When the history books are written, despite all the complexity of the Arab Spring’s demise, American inaction will be the primary reason.

Referring back to the five-year old boy, Columbia University professor Hamid Dabashis writes:

For a moment staring into the shameless lens of a camera, Omran Daqneesh has left a damning indictment. In the silent bewilderment and steady gaze of the Omran Daqneesh there is the indictment of the entire Earth on which he lives. No fingerpointing to a murderous president here, an obscene king there, or an indecent ayatollah elsewhere, will ever wipe that dusty bloody face or close those piercing, inquisitive eyes. In front of that face and those eyes every god in every heaven and every creature on every corner of this earth, from the White House to the Kremlin, from Ankara to Riyadh, from Tehran to Cairo, stand accused. No, this is no icon. This is Omran Daqneesh, a Syrian boy, for one split second shooting through a bare-faced lens to grab your throat – yes, your throat, as it does my throat – and will not allow you to turn away or point a finger at anyone else.

“The blood of the innocent cries from the ground” as ancient scripture warns. Speaking of the Syrian massacre Kristof adds, “It is also a stain on all of us, analogous to the indifference toward Jewish refugees in the 1930s, to the eyes averted from Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s, to Darfur in the 2000s.”

And it’s not over yet.  The killing continues.  And increases.

Can we do something now?  Is it possible to be shaken from our passivity?

Those who have died are gone. But there are others in danger – who might be helped: Children. Women. Men.

Will we keep watching?

One day, Americans will cry at what we didn’t do…

The question for now still is the same: why haven’t we yet?

Notes: 

[1] This commentator continues: If anything, “the visual evidence from Aleppo, and the misery of millions of displaced Syrian refugees (half of whom are children) seems to have hardened the heart of the international community. A psychologist perhaps could explain it, because I can’t.”

Others go farther by way of context:  “The same media that brings us this image today,” writes one professor at the University of Columbia has “the attention span of a schizophrenic baboon” and by tomorrow it will be forgotten for another.  He goes on to describe a “cycle of normalised forgetfulness” – numbed to the real-life stories of pain around us “screaming for attention for a second before this scream is lost in the next.”

[2] Clearly this is not simply a liberal or conservative issue either.  Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and others plead Obama to change course, while republican leaders share some of the blame for politicizing the issues in a way that complicated Obama’s deliberations.

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