The civil war in Syria has been raging for years now, and last week came to a head with the taking of Aleppo by Syrian government forces. The city, which has already been subject to bombings, water and food deprivation, and other horrors, was not evacuated. Thousands of people there are now dead or stranded without access to medical care or other necessities.
On Twitter and elsewhere, residents of Aleppo made their pleas heard, sending out their final goodbyes to the Internet in the hopes that some people outside Syria would be listening. And to some degree, we listened: articles cropped up, donations have been sent, and petitions -- signed. None of it, of course, made the slightest difference.
The Syrian civil war is one of the bloodiest conflicts in recent history, even compared to other recent Middle East disasters. The West reacted primarily with complaints about the influx of refugees, failing to properly support refugees accepted, and otherwise ignore Assad and Russia’s systematic violence against and oppression of the citizens of Syria.
Now that things are looking as close to bad as they can be, it is popular for Westerners, especially liberals, to trot out the old phrase “never again” and remind us that we swore countless times, after each catastrophe, that next time we would do something to stop it. As if reminding us of our failure to intervene before would somehow spur us to intervene now. As if declaring Syria’s ruin to be a “moral failing” wasn’t simply repeating the obvious, only varying by degree of manufactured outrage or genuine sadness.
Here is my unsavory opinion: the West has lost its ability to act on moral grounds. “Never again” is meaningless—a more appropriate mantra would be “this will definitely happen again." Time and time again, we have shown ourselves unable or unwilling to change the course of disasters. Instead, we opt to watch them unfold while reminding ourselves how horrible it all is. It is time to acknowledge at last that we, as a society, have accepted catastrophe as part of the status quo. Every now and then, millions of people will be dispossessed, oppressed, tortured, murdered. In light of our inaction, clearly this is acceptable to the powers that be and to the citizens of the world that support them.
I do not know if it is possible to raise ourselves from this moral apathy. It is not solely a failing of individuals; I know many people who would help if they could, who donate and volunteer and raise their voices. It is a failure of our political economy, of the ways that power is distributed and used. When power is almost exclusively concentrated in money and weapons, there is no recourse to moral grounds or compassionate action. “Never again” carries no force backing it, and the more we point out our moral failings without having the power to correct them, the weaker the sting of that accusation becomes. We find ourselves inured to morals.
One of the primary struggles of living under a certain world order is the inability to imagine another way. I certainly suffer from that. I do not know what we need to change to recharge our moral natures and relieve ourselves from this compassionless apathy. But in the meantime, let’s stop pretending that we expect anything more. As a society, we have failed that test.
If you’d like to exercise what power you do have, please consider donating to one of the organizations listed here.