Syria is to Libya what North-Korea is to Iraq: an increasingly embarrassing reminder of how the West has double standards for military intervention in other countries. While Iraq was invaded under false pretenses of them having weapons of mass destruction (one of the most overrated and dangerously indoctrinating catchphrases of the first decade of the 21st century), North-Korea openly has been, and still is, free to boast about conducting nuclear tests and wanting to develop rockets that could hit not only South-Korea, but also Japan and even the US. And while Libyan rebels eventually received air support from NATO during the uprising of 2011, the West remains innocuously silent and divided over what to do with the uprising against the Bashar al-Assad regime. Though it has long been no secret that rebels are receiving some humanitarian aid and equipment, there has been no sign of either an upcoming no-fly zone, or UN peace-keepers on the ground. In fact, when president Obama draw the ‘red line’ for intervention at the Syrian regime using chemical weapons, this was basically a promise to al-Assad that he could merrily go on killing Syrian rebels and civilians with bombs and bullets, so long as he did not use poison. From the first day, the West has been giving great attention to the conflict in its media, but this attention has not seem to give us an understanding of the reality of the conflict. It seems that for those of us standing on the side-line and observing the war, we have not realized how brutal war can be – and inadvertently will be if it drags on for too long.
And now we have the latest symptom of our criminal ignorance on the state of affairs in the Syrian uprising: we are shocked and appalled! that real war crimes are taking place. Today, a headline on CNN bereaved a video showing a Syrian rebel cutting out the heart of a killed soldier and taking a bite out of it. Needless to say, CNN only showed censored bits of the video, but for those who aren’t faint of heart, here’s a less reserved exposition (needless warning: Not Suitable For Work).
The sensitive and urgent question here is: why is this so shocking to some of us?
I can remember being a kid, reading about gladiator fights and learning about how the coliseum served to remind the civilized and sheltered Romans, those living far from the battlefields at the Empire’s borders, of what life is actually like: “Nasty, brutish, and short.” Of course such a conclusion is tricky: there are no ancient sources that explicitly confirm this, so at best, this is post-hoc analysis of a culture long gone. But there may be truth in this nevertheless: here in the West, only a very small portion of the population have ever seen combat or have experienced living with foreign soldiers on their own soil. In Europe, the last generation who can remember World War 2 is now dying out and soon there will be a truly rare age in European history, one in which no native inhabitant can remember his country being subject to warfare. A great victory for humanity that comes at a small cost: how can we even try to imagine what war is like if we’re only experiencing war vicariously through media reports or through the (historical) fiction of books, movies, and video games?
When I asked the sensitive question of why we should be shocked when we see a video of a man cannibalizing a killed enemy, I did not mean that we ought to have been completely unemotional. The video is truly a nasty sight and only those who have become wholly desensitized to brutality can look at it without feeling at least some basic amount of disgust and anxiety. But between the extremes of paralyzing shock and unblinking stoicism, there should be the notion that this is not (or rather, should not be) at all surprising. War brings out the worst traits of humanity.
I wanted to add “this goes without saying” to that last sentence, but then I changed my mind. It’s not obvious, and we have not learned this lesson. And until this awareness sets in, more people will die in a atrocious war that is being played out in front of the watching eyes of the world.