Five years ago, set against the once-hopeful backdrop of the Arab Spring uprisings, Syria devolved into civil war. For a time, it seemed that nationwide protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s government, whose forces responded with violent crackdowns, might be supported by the international community. There was President Obama’s talk, and subsequent retreat from a “red line” regarding Assad’s use of chemical and biological weapons on his people. But then, unless John Kerry and Vladimir Putin’s routinely failed attempts to “thaw” East/West relations while brokering Syrian peace grabbed a few headlines, the American people turned away. And so did our mainstream media apparatus.
Because we were still struggling to climb out from the Great Recession. Or because there were simply too many conflicts unfolding across the Middle Eastern region to develop a clear strategy, focus and narrative. Or because Americans (and the President) had signaled a lack of appetite for direct military engagement in Syria – or anywhere else – after the quagmire that was Dubya’s Iraqi excursion. Whatever the reasons for our disinterest, out of sight and mind has not served the nearly 500,000 Syrians who’ve died while the world dithers.
Yes, half a million people. Roughly the population of Toledo, Ohio has been wiped out by the lumbering, endless atrocities that occur almost daily, in the war-torn nation. But did you hear about this airstrike on April 30, which killed 50 people at a Syrian pediatric hospital in Aleppo? Or that 200 civilians died in the final week of last month, leading the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to label the situation a victor-less morass, and a “monstrous disregard for civilian lives by all parties to the conflict?
No. That seems unlikely. Any interested party could read about these attacks online, but paradoxically, one almost has to know they happened in order to begin a search. You won’t get much help from the mainstream media. After the Syrian hospital assault, my researcher watched last Friday’s noon (CT) hour of Wolf Blitzer on CNN. At 12:50pm, he finally made reference to the tragedy, perhaps only to fill time before the next host took over and resumed wall-to-wall US presidential race coverage. She stayed with the network late into the evening, and never heard about the airstrike again.
It’s easy and tempting to blame the media for heartlessly misplaced priorities. Wolf Blitzer routinely renders himself a convenient target. As our own Justin Baragona recently observed, Blitzer is among “the goddamned worst” in lazy, misinformed reporting. But if we’re being totally honest about our ignorance regarding Syria and other ravaged nations, we have to start by indicting ourselves. Let’s be real, America. Just as we didn’t end up with all-Trump-all-the-time by accident, it follows that the media’s terrorism engagement strategy is an echo of our will.
We the people dictate what is given to us to consume through analysis of what we want to eat. We feast on Trump, the Kardashians and sports. We’ll also tune in for terrorism coverage, but selfishly, as we perceive it directly pertaining to us:
“Shit, I was planning a trip to France next year. What if I’m attacked while taking selfies at the Eiffel Tower? Je suis Paris!”
“Damn. My little cousin is studying abroad in Belgium. I hope she’s ok. I stand with Brussels.”
“Well, I was hoping to visit Syria and tour the shelled ruins of Aleppo/aid in the refugee crisis/fight ISIS, but in light of recent violence I might hang back”….said no one ever (except maybe these guys).
Yes, we’ve become this cynical. News outlets respond thusly. What happens “over there” in the Middle East is of no concern to our great civilization, especially with gas prices so well managed.
We’re better than this, America. Though we’re not physically in Syria destroying institutions and lives, our collective avoidance of the violence and terrorism occurring there has a Kitty Genovese effect on the people. We’re enabling by ignoring. To return to the opening paragraph, one of the Arab Spring’s most positive and valuable lessons was that the Internet, camera phones and relentless media coverage can shame corrupt regimes into retreat. It’s been five years and counting. Let’s ask ourselves and our mainstream media to un-forget about Syria.