The unfathomable horrors unraveling in Syria can only be described as a theater of destruction in the most literal definition of the term. An entire country’s population has been largely uprooted or displaced, millions of lives have been irreversibly damaged, and an entire civilization has been erased. The people of Aleppo have begun to make their final pleas for help from a numb, indifferent, and complicit international community, and every time you think the depths of barbarity and violence cannot possibly get any worse, a new episode of the civil war proves you wrong.
Humanity once again grapples with the question of how we allowed this to happen on our watch, with so many concluding that the slogan “never again”- coined after the world shamelessly witnessed or stood idly by in the face of one too many genocides – has now been rendered meaningless.
When we look at Syria, it is true that “never again” seems like nothing more than retrospective posturing. The phrase is now commonly invoked ironically, to expose the world’s incapacity to learn from history, or to make an indictment against the notion that the trajectory of humanity is one of moral progress. It is easy to take morally unequivocal positions on humanitarian crises, ethnic cleansing, and genocide when you’re decades detached from them and do not have to go up against the prevailing political and ideological zeitgeists of the time.
But to describe Syria as proof of the vacuousness of “never again” cheapens the unprecedented circumstance that the world find itself in today.
The following words by Syrian activist Rime Allaf on Facebook have forced me to fundamentally refocus how I view humanity’s relationship to the Syrian crisis:
No, actually, Syria is not an “again” but an absolute first. It is nothing like Bosnia or Rwanda or Chechnya or any other “never again” genocidal event in history. It is a macabre Truman Show, an uninterrupted 6-year long live reality TV program watched globally 24/7 on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, on Skype, WhatsApp and Viber.
“Never again” doesn’t apply to us, for what has been done to Syria has never been done before. Our tragic fate is to be the modern age’s “never before.”
Never before has the world been able to observe – in real time – the destruction of a nation and the extermination of a people who dared to demand freedom. Never before has a civilian population been filmed under attack with Scud missiles, barrel bombs and chemical weapons by its “own” illegitimate authorities. Never before have starvation sieges and old-fashioned barbaric massacres been so documented as they happened. Never before has mass torture been so evidenced. And never before has the world’s indifferent silence been so loud, save for perfunctory condemnations and erasable red lines.
Indeed, never before has the mightiest superpower the world has ever known shamelessly pretended to be impotent, and never before has it had the temerity of falsely pleading with the Syrian people’s executioners for grace and mercy, the same grace and mercy it denied Syrians by rejecting their desperate appeals for protection.
Never again? You mean never before. Hell of a legacy.
This is a uniqueness to the Syrian tragedy that the world has never seen, and one that it can only hope to never see anywhere else. Indeed, Syria is not the antithesis of “never again.” It is the embodiment of “never before,” and that is to our eternal shame.