You Did Not Fail Aleppo
If it is even possible to metastasize the impact of the word genocide, social media has done it. There is a jarring guilt that comes with watching the extermination of human life unfold on your Facebook feed. The whiplash of relativism can cause one to rub at their neck in reflex.
I was sitting at my work desk yesterday in Malibu, California, worried about my busy January schedule, about my lackluster workout routine, and the status of shipped Christmas presents when I watched the video.
Below a viral comedic meme and above a montage of babies snuggling puppies, I saw the body of a man in the broken streets of Aleppo, engulfed in flames, the distant screams of women and children playing like a dislodged record in the background. I never wanted a video to end so much in my life, and yet I could not move myself to exit out of it.
Halfway through, the man sat up.
I will never forget that image as long as I live.
His legs and torso were covered in flames, and yet the man sat up with such a chilling resignation. He did not writhe in pain, did not even scramble for something to extinguish the fire. He looked all around at the chaos, almost as if shocked by its normalization. The video ended with someone throwing a rug over the immolated man in the street.
When death surrounds you for so long, and raps on your door for years, I suppose it is almost welcomed when it finally comes.
Hope left Aleppo long ago. We are only now just realizing that behind the blue screens of social media, thousands upon thousands of miles away.
The outcry feels too familiar: hashtags. Darkened monuments. Links to charities. What comes next will feel familiar too: the inundation of smiling photos around Christmas trees, coffee mug selfies, inane dinner outing solo shots. Life will move on.
But we ought to hold on to this feeling of helplessness. We rarely have such visceral existential reminders of who we are and what we are meant to do with our lives. In this case, the only failure is apathy. I don’t mean that in the way you probably think I do, though.
We rarely have such visceral existential reminders of who we are and what we are meant to do with our lives.
There is a key distinction here, one I want to investigate a little more. The growing consensus on Twitter and Facebook these past few days is that “we” failed Aleppo. We have shoved ourselves into the idea of humanity failing Aleppo by individualizing our responsibility in the matter.
It sounds so crass, but I did not fail Aleppo. In the four years since rebels took Aleppo and Assad’s army began to massacre the civilians inside its walls, the two most objectively selfless things I could have done as an individual citizen in the United States were:
- Literally flown to the Middle East, snuck into Syria and tried to rescue people with my bare hands (in which I almost certainly would have been killed or kidnapped myself)
- Donated 100% of my earnings to charities helping the Syrian people (a course of action that would have resulted in me starving on the street)
This reasoning sounds sarcastic, but believe me, this is far too serious of a subject to be facetious. The problem with insinuating that humanity’s failure in Aleppo ought to cause us all personal shame and embarrassment is it incorrectly frames the stakes and subtly discourages future action.
My base assumption is every one of my Facebook friends is appalled and saddened by the atrocities in Aleppo right now. In instances like this, I believe the sentiment goes without saying. But when the tenor of our rhetoric focuses on how we all ought to feel ashamed, the implication is we failed to live up to the requisite amount of action necessary to avoid or curtail the situation.
Nothing we could have done as individuals would have prevented Aleppo. We could have thrown a billion dollars into Syrian charities and this would still be going on. We could have phone banked for years on end, calling representatives, and it wouldn’t have affected the US government’s policy abroad. The Aleppo situation is an extremely complex geopolitical entanglement existing above the outcries of average citizens. It involves a civil war in Syria, aggression of the Russian government/military, and feckless foreign policy on the part of the United States and other western nations.
Awareness is great, but inciting and empowering optimism are even better. These are the actions I would love to see bear out from these all-too-common emotions of anger and helplessness.
Be angry — you should be.
Be angry at our politicians. Bill Clinton famously said his failure to act in Rwanda was the biggest regret of his presidency.
In September of 2013, President Obama said of the situation in Syria, “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”
This off-hand remark caused quite a stir at the time, yet the Obama administration doubled down on it a day later, when White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said, “As the President said yesterday in terms of Syria, we’re watching very closely the stockpile of Syrian chemical weapons; that any use or proliferation of efforts related to those chemical weapons is something that would be very serious and it would be a grave mistake. There are important international obligations that the Syrian regime must live up to in terms of the handling of their chemical weapons. And the officials who have that responsibility will be held accountable for their actions and will be held accountable for living up to those international obligations.”
The UN concluded Assad crossed this “red-line” twice after Obama’s statement, and yet the U.S. did not enforce its word.
Russia has since occupied this power vacuum in Syria and is all but openly assisting the Assad regime and its genocidal actions in Aleppo.
I am angry at UN Ambassador Samantha Power, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Problem from Hell changed my life — an investigation of the history of genocide and the state and individual actors who failed to intervene. She has been in a position of key influential and political power as the UN Ambassador since 2013, and yet has seemingly cross faded into a figure in her own book; someone who witnessed genocide as it happened yet did nothing to intervene. Her speech at the UN this week, full of empty words and worthless condemnations, was immensely disappointing to watch.
If you are a person highly critical of the US’s “imperialistic” foreign policy and its tendency to “meddle in others’ business,” but are furious right now about the global community’s inability to intervene, now would be the time to wrestle with your preconceived notions of when it is and is not appropriate for countries to involve themselves in foreign entanglements.
I mean this in all sincerity. It is OK to feel anger for those in power who failed to act. Now is also the time to dive back in and re-investigate where you stand on these complex issues of foreign policy.
I am by no means pretending to have the answer.
The ugly truth is that evil exists in this world and it always will, and while the indignation over Aleppo is important, it is also a climactic moment of outrage that could be justifiably articulated every single day on earth:
- Dosomething.org estimates there are 20–30 million people in slavery today
- North Korea is a truly evil country whose dictator tosses people in labor camps, starves his citizens, and has human beings executed on a whim, and in the most barbaric ways possible
- South Sudan is itself on the, “brink of ethnic civil war” and, “Rwandan-like genocide.”
The horrors go on and on and on, and you are not responsible for any of them. We cannot fix all these problems — especially as individuals living in small towns in the United States. This is why it is important to flee from the debilitating thought pattern of trying to solve all these issues at once… by yourself or with your one paycheck. Indeed, the solution is not for SEVEN BILLION people to descend on Aleppo and save its citizens.
Embrace the uneasiness of knowing this is not going away. The world does not need one person fixing everything; it needs seven billion people fixing just a little.
That is how progress is made. Be empowered by this.
Recognize that you were put where you are for a reason, and that you are capable of changing the world by changing the world you know. We were not all meant to be on the ground, working for NGO’s in war zones. But we can support those who have answered that calling.
Pain and injustice are relative yet equally important. The sufferings of a homeless man in Malibu are not lessened because people are being bombed in Syria. Your own struggles and anxieties are not nullified by wars fought across oceans. That is not how this works — if it were, the only person who would ever get to complain is the one suffering most out of seven billion. What a cynical way of approaching suffering.
It is OK to recognize the relativity of your situation. If you are more fortunate than most, give thanks, then go alleviate suffering where you are. There is so much of it.
This is what I hope we do. I hope these jarring, existential reminders force us to move.
I hope this is the story that changes us for good, that causes us to relentlessly pursue the alleviation of suffering around us, to give more of our money away than we can probably afford, to support those primary sources on the ground in countries far from us, and yet still yearn to give up our time on weeknights and Saturday afternoons in neighborhoods not far from our own… to give to others in an abundance we did not think possible.
If Aleppo infuriates you, as it should, do as much as you can in the realm of politics: call your representatives, vote for candidates you agree with, run yourself.
But on the day-to-day, know that you did not fail Aleppo. But that same you, that same tiny individual can change someone’s world in the place God has put you.