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Never again? What about Syria?

Vows our society made after the Holocaust ring hollow

Saxtons River

I’ve been thinking a lot about Syria. Until recently, the country seemed largely absent from the news beyond the occasional CNN crawl or obligatory New York Times piece on a Sunday.

Now that it’s being framed as a civil war, which means it could go on for a long time, I’ve tried to imagine what it must be like to be emotionally battered and sneaking around on the street begging to buy some bread.

I keep imagining a baby suckling the last remnants of life from the breast of its dead mother, or an old woman waiting for her husband, who might never come home.

What is it like, I wonder, to be tortured in a Syrian prison, or to be shot at close range, along with everyone else in your community? What is the last thought that goes through your head when that is happening?

* * *

According to the United Nations, children are now being used as human shields while the atrocities of the Syrian regime continue. What is it like to be a father looking upon that?

How does one contain the terrible terror beating in your chest when you tell your children to stay away from windows and doors, to try falling asleep in a mattressed corner? How do you say to them, “I can’t go to the store for milk, there is no more milk,” or kiss them with a fiercely whispered “I love you more than my own life”?

How maddening must it be to watch unarmed blue-bereted UN peacekeepers witness the violence day after day while their suited superiors in New York, safely sequestered in council chambers and plush offices overlooking the East River, spout diplomatic inanities as the slaughter continues?

* * *

We must take “bold steps,” said former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who until recently was a special envoy to the region.

Recently, expressing “grave concern” at escalations, Annan demanded that both sides “take all steps to ensure that civilians are not harmed.” How ridiculous such proclamations must sound falling on Syrian ears full with the shattering sounds of mortar attacks.

Recent press reports from abroad, where the crisis has been covered more vigorously than in the U.S., state that Annan has admitted his plan to end the conflict failed. He wants the U.N. and the international community at large to increase pressure on Syria to ensure its implementation, an unlikely scenario, or to discuss other options that could be undertaken to stop the bloodshed.

But it’s clear that diplomatic efforts are ineffective.

U.N. observers have come under fire during massacres and have been refused access to the sites they are meant to examine. Current U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the Security Council that U.N. patrols have been regularly obstructed and deliberately targeted.

Annan has threatened further “consequences,” meaning more sanctions, a pathetic strategy in light of failed U.N. attempts to curtail Assad’s murderous tactics.

One must wonder: If it were a question of access to other parts of the region for our own “vital interests,” or if Syria had a commodity we wanted — say, oil — or if we had military interests there as we do in Bahrain, would the so-called civilized world still be dabbling in sanctions?

Or might we together have found a way to destroy the barbaric Assad and his brutal regime? (If we can get Osama Bin Laden and Muammar Gaddafi, why not Syria’s Satan?)

* * *

After the Holocaust, the world proclaimed, “Never again!”

Samantha Power, director of the Human Rights Initiative at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, reminds us of this resolve in her forthcoming book Again and Again, an examination of American responses to genocide since the Holocaust.

After that genocide came Cambodia, the Balkans, and Rwanda. “Never again!” we said.

Still, people in those countries for whom we did too little too late learned all too quickly that the promise of “never again” counted for little.

And they were not alone, says Powers.

“Notwithstanding a promising beginning, and a half-century of rhetorical ballast, the American consensus that genocide is wrong has not been accompanied by a willingness to stop or even condemn the crime itself,” she says.

“Genocide has occurred so often and so uncontested in the last 50 years that an epithet more apt in describing recent events than the oft-chanted ‘never again’ is in fact ‘again and again.’

“The gap between the promise and the practice of the last 50 years is dispiriting indeed. How can this be?”

* * *

How indeed? It is a question I ask myself every time I think about what is happening on the streets of Syria while here at home we seem more concerned with sports, Dancing with the Stars, and the endless sputtering of political candidates who would be king.

Where in all that clutter is the wail of crying children, the grief of bereft parents, the terrifying sounds of slaughter, and when do we mean, once and for all, Never again?

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Originally published in The Commons issue #164 (Wednesday, August 8, 2012).

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