Yet another in the unabating stream of gruesome images from six years of equally unabating atrocity—so much so that words like “gruesome” and “atrocity” ring hollow. Yesterday, they were the images of the washed up corpse of Aylan Kurdi and shell-shocked Omar Daqneesh.
Today, they are the strewn bodies of the children of Khan Sheikhun in the province of Idlib; pallid, inanimate, streaked in red as though for dramatic effect. Such was the aftermath of the airstrike on the small village, where field medics have claimed that sarin gas has produced a death toll of up to 70 thus far, by chemical weapons, most notably sarin gas.
Yet, repeatedly, the Assad regime denies the use and ownership of chemical weapons. In contrast with these declarations are the testimonies of field doctors, describing symptoms that range from stomach bloating to foaming at the mouth, as well as the stench emanating from the bodies and the cases of poisoning.
According to the BBC, citing the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the strikes came from jets belonging to the Syrian regime or Russia. The incident recalls previous similar strikes, most notably in Ghouta in 2013, in which hundreds were killed due to chemical attacks.
Shortly after the Ghouta attack, which occurred just days after an international delegation’s visit to Syria, the Assad regime announced that it had joined the Chemical Weapons Convention. It further claimed that its arsenal was purely a deterrent against Israeli attacks, and would not be used against its own people.
However, according to UN and field reports, the Syrian regime has used sarin gas in several instances thereon, between 2014 and 2016, such as the strikes on the towns of Talmans and Sermin in Idlib. Moreover, Human Rights Watch reported the use of poison gases in Aleppo in 2015.
According to experts, these attacks occurred on a small scale, relying on chlorine gas, which does not fall under the Chemical Weapons Convention, as it is used for industrial purposes.
The attacks coincided with the “Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region” conference in Brussels, discussing the future of the conflict and reviewing the aid pledged to Syria during previous conferences. Amid calls from France to convene an urgent Security Council session, the Syrian and Russian authorities have both denied responsibility for the attacks.
On the images of war, and their role in the collective conscious from outrage to desensitization.
Yesterday, they were the images of Aylan Kurdi and Omar Daqneesh. Today, they are the children of Idlib.
Guidebook to the Massacre
In the aftermath of every massacre, a limited set of options exist, as though a predetermined guidebook has been devised, dictating the proper responses to the situation at hand. Each party assumes its position, ensuring that the sharp stab of the images doesn’t break the monotony of the repetitive rhetoric justifying the unjustifiable.
Hence, the images of the massacres dissolve into the peripheries of collective memory, like images from an old film or a particularly sorrowful anthem. In such a manner, these images become replaced by the minutiae of daily life, and political rhetoric is once again foregrounded. Then emerge the commentators, pontificating on the political dimensions of the Idlib airstrikes, and the consequences of the use of chemical weapons on ongoing negotiations.
Subsequently, each side resumes its stance with regard to the regime’s responsibility or lack thereof, while others make sure to remind everyone of Islamic State’s use of chemical weapons throughout the conflict.
In a few days, the images of the atrocity will begin to fade from view, at least inasfar as they continue to hold emblematic significance for the viewer.
The Hyperreal War
In situations like these, it is useful to recall Susan Sontag’s seminal texts, On Photography and its sequel, Regarding the Pain of Others, through which she dissects the role of war photography and its relation to the surrounding reality. In particular, Sontag questions the political role of such photography in the effect that it has on viewers, and the ways in which it is invariably exploited to prop up certain political rhetoric.
In the first stage of Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag notes that the photographs taken during the violent events or shortly thereafter constitute a means to focus attention on the pain of the other. She states that this is often met with rage and hatred in one camp, and accusations of fabrication in another.
However, she notes that this immediate reaction develops into something else; an appetite for such images of pain, much like the instinct for nude photography, followed by feelings of shame, as well as shock and horror.
Further on, she summarizes her contention in stating that celebrated works of war photography often taken on a consumerist aspect. The more polished the production, the sharper their emotional effect.
Moreover, she holds that, with the exception of field doctors and others who can actually provide aid in such situations, the viewership of such photography amounts to no more than a type of voyeurism.
Like Sontag, various thinkers have been caught between theories; on the one hand, there are the proponents of the idea that the proliferation of violent images serves to arouse sentiment in favor of ending the war—such as the case in Vietnam. However, on the opposite end of the scale, there are arguments for the desensitization of viewers toward such images.
In keeping with his theories of the hyperreal, Jean Baudrillard once famously proposed, in his essay-collection-turned-book The Gulf War Did Not Happen, that for a viewer, visual simulations of war are no more indicative of its reality than a videogame or a film might be. In this case, distance and the screen serve to perpetuate an already existing sense of disengagement.
Between the various perspectives, there are no clear-cut answers on the ethics of disseminating war photography. At best, they serve to reignite interest in a cause; but to what end?
In spite of all this, the atrocities of war remain very real, irrespective of people’s capacity to comprehend them, and the all-too-human tendency to want to forget or compartmentalize. As the crisis extends beyond measurable time and consequence, disengagement becomes a luxury that viewers increasingly cannot afford.