The days after Houla continued as all the days had before. But the world’s eyes halted on the massacre.
Houla’s images instigated the world’s outrage in its predictable forms: in heart-wrenching eyewitness accounts of children watching their families being murdered; in sectarian-tainted op-eds that cynically questioned who had perpetrated the crimes; in dry-eyed, canned statements by regime mouthpieces complaining about the media’s “tsunami of lies,” which painted the regime as criminal when in fact it was a “victim.” There was outrage over the images themselves and outrage over the decision to expose the international public to the violent images (as not to upset an innocent British boy or girl).
And the outrage moved from analysis and narrative to questions: Is the UN plan working? Is a regime-led investigation a fair way to proceed? Who committed the crimes? Is killing by shelling (by the regime) as bad as killing by close-range (by unknown “monsters” according to Bashar al-Assad)? Is it pronounced Houla or Huli? Were the slaughtered people Sunni or Shite (or Sunnis who had converted to Shiism)? Are we with or against foreign intervention? Who will replace Assad? Who will arm the rebels? Who are the rebels? Why is the Syrian opposition still fragmented?
And of course the debate: Will Houla be Syria’s Sabra and Shatila, Syria’s Srebrenica, Syria’s game changer?
What exactly is the “world” responding to? The graphic images? The sheer brutality? The number of dead? The gruesome stories?
Over the last fifteen months, we have seen Houla and variations of Houla happen over and over. We witnessed slaughtered bodies in February in the Karm al-Zeitoun massacre. We have seen men and boys dripping with blood, with half of their faces blown off, still struggling to breathe. We watched while an entire city was destroyed, missile by missile. We watched a man flattened by an Assad tank, over and over, into human road kill. We have seen dead children, not only slaughtered, but bombed, burned, and mutilated. We know that in addition to Houla’s fifty-two dead children, there are hundreds of others; in addition to Houla’s murdered men and women, there are thousands of others. Our dead have been left to rot on the streets of Homs. Our dead have been buried in the public parks of Hama. Houla’s mass grave is just one more to add to the others, in Homs, Hama, Rastan, and Jisr al-Shoughour. And let’s not forget the unknown thousands of Syrians buried under the concrete foundations of a luxury hotel in Hama, by Assad the elder.
Houla was a tragedy. But it was not a game changer. It was not even close—not to us, at least. Maybe it was to those who have been hedging bets on Syria’s future. Or to those who keep a secret, magic “number” of how many Syrians are allowed to die before it’s too much.
How many more gruesome, violent videos can we watch before we really can’t stomach it any more? How many people have to die before the world either says enough is enough, or turns away from their screens? How long before the daily death toll in Syria is no longer on the front pages and becomes an invisible battlefield, like Iraq, like Afghanistan, and like Libya?
How long before you are desensitized?
How long before you forget?