The massacre in the Syrian town of Houla over the weekend is one of those events that seems to provide a tipping point of outrage. It’s not a particularly remarkable event by the standards of the Syrian civil war. Perhaps a bit bigger in scale than some killings, but still only a small portion of the death and murder that has happened, even since the feeble, fingers-crossed ceasefire plan of April.
But like the shelling of the Sarajevo marketplace in 1995, Houla has suddenly made people aware again that there is a war going on and that somebody ought to do something about it. Even by my own unscientific measure of how many journalists call me for comment, yesterday was the most booming day for Syrian news in months.
So what is it about an event like Houla that suddenly galvanises everyone? Is it the number of dead? Perhaps. But personally I think it is the number of dead children that gives people in the West such a specific reaction. The quantification of how many children made up the victims of this event pulls a strong emotional chord with us, even though the logic actually implies that 100 dead adult men is a lesser evil.
Yet even with our outrage over dead children we are not that constant. It seems that eight kids were accidentally killed in a NATO airstrike in Afghanistan on Sunday. Just another blip in the thousands that have died there every year for the last decade, mostly at the hands of ‘anti-government elements’, with a smaller number killed through ‘collateral damage’ inflicted by Western forces.
The nature of viral news and social media could be part of this inconsistency. Photos, Facebook updates and YouTube clips divorce events from context or deeper analysis. “50 Dead Kids” becomes the whole story, and if there are pictures to go with the Tweet, then that’s even better. There just aren’t as many bloggers on the ground in the remote provinces of Afghanistan.
For Syria watchers the Houla massacre is more noteworthy for things like the inconsistencies in the causes of death, the reason so many victims were children and the tit-for-tat finger-pointing of the FSA and Syrian government. Civilian deaths are a point of propaganda for both sides, and like the Yugoslavian meltdown there are sometimes lingering questions regarding the true identity of forces responsible for atrocities. Likewise the looming spectre of Islamist terror groups getting more deeply involved in the region is also troubling.
Certainly there is nothing harmful about re-awakening interest in Syria and making people care more. However, the “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality and the ever more rapid churn of such stories through the digital world makes me pessimistic about the chance of any real action resulting from a temporary outrage over Houla.
Tomorrow Lolcats will be back on the front page.