If you’ve been following the news at all recently, you will have heard about the chemical weapon attack in Syria on August 21st. According to US Secretary of State John Kerry, the attack left 1,429 people dead, including 426 children. There is no defending this atrocity, and it made the world sit up and take notice. But what makes this a worse atrocity than, say, the slaughter of 100,000 people?
Much has been said about the metaphorical ‘red line’ that President Obama suggested has been crossed on the world stage. Putting aside the issue of who set this line and what it means for global politics, or the even thornier debate of whether it falls to us to intervene or not, this whole scenario speaks volumes about how, as a culture, we are becoming steadily desensitised to horrors like this.
The chemical attack has ensured that the Syrian civil war has finally been dragged into the spotlight. The incident led to a far greater awareness of what was going on in the region, and this is in turn encouraged debate and possible action over a huge humanitarian crisis. But what is alarming is that it took an event of this magnitude. In an era when world news is at the fingertips of anybody with access to the Internet and social media, the daily horrors of the globe don’t seem to cut it anymore. For Syria, the two-year slaughter of 100,00 people just wasn’t interesting enough. It took the use of a weapon banned since the Geneva Protocol of 1925 to get us to look twice.
Undoubtedly, the Iraq War and involvement in Afghanistan has had a huge impact on public interest in foreign affairs. British and US soldiers dying in a far-off country for what many believed was no real reason could easily have made our society less inclined to take an interest in foreign bloodshed for fear of a repeat scenario. Harsh as it is to say, the length of our conflict in the Middle East has ensured that the public had, for want of a better word, lost interest by the time Western troops began to pull out. Similarly, projects like the much-maligned Kony 2012 have damaged further attempts to generate interest in world atrocities: drumming up enormous fervour about a localised issue and then failing to do anything about it is not a sterling business model. The ardent cynics among us might even suggest that had any of what happened in Syria instead taken place in a European country, the discussion of intervention or aid would have been back in 2011, not two years down the line.
So what is society’s ‘red line’? What threshold needs to be crossed before a news story becomes a hot topic, a story for the Western world to debate around the breakfast table? Desensitisation in society is endemic: kidnapper and serial rapist Ariel Castro was covered so expansively in the media because, even here in Southampton, rape is becoming hideously commonplace. Whatever action is decided regarding Syria, one thing is clear. It shouldn’t be this hard to get our attention.