Since the UN Security Council failed to pass its resolution on Syria late on Saturday night last week – it would have been Resolution 2035 -, I have spent hours on the Guardian’s live blog, on Al Jazeera or curated Twitter lists to try and stay updated on events in Syria. But even the most informative live blog cannot mask the feeling of intense powerlessness in the face of the killing of Syrian people by their own government; moral outrage alone is very bad at stopping tanks and grenades. And there’s a certain voyeuristic element in clicking the refresh button, as if to say, “Let’s see whether there’s more bloodshed.” Eventually, the sad realization sets in that this kind of killing – the loss of dozens or hundreds of lives in a city, in a single day – probably happens almost every day in one of the world’s conflict zones. Except that on most days, we simply don’t have the news shoved into our face, and we’re not too keen to inquire about it either.
Maybe feeling disgusted is a good thing: It keeps us from treating violence as simply another news story, sandwiched between political chit-chat and celebrity gossip. But is it even worth spilling digital ink over our reactions while Homs lies under siege?
Since we cannot prevent and should not ignore our reactions, maybe they can at least serve as a starting point for broader reflections. Two thoughts come to mind:
We really don’t know too much about the world. This is not meant to be a statement of condemnation but merely a factual observation. The insurance company Munich Re estimates that almost 300,000 lives were lost to catastrophic events in 2010. That is slightly higher than the number of annual small-arms deaths outside of conflict zones – estimated by the Small Arms Survey around 245,000 -, and it dwarves the number of casualties of armed conflicts, estimated around 50,000 annually. While these numbers are contested (how do you measure deaths on a global scale? What counts as an “armed conflict”?), they indicate at least one thing: The world remains a pretty violent place. More often than not, we seem remarkably unaware of that fact. That does not mean that we don’t care – but there’s a certain information gap that even 24/7 media cannot bridge. The question is whether this leads us towards another gap: the empathy gap. It is laudable to feel an abstract commitment to humanity – but ultimately, the suffering is not borne by aggregate numbers but by individuals.
This leads to a second point: Despite all the talk about global solidarity, about the “responsibility to protect” and about our presumed commitment to freedom and democracy, we are remarkably powerless to stop inhumane things from happening. All the books written about the decline of the nation-state cannot mask the fact that the UN resolution failed because of big power politics. The outpouring of tweets, videos, and status updates from Syria is doing little to stop the violence (meanwhile, foreign correspondence networks have been cut down for years). And our interventionist tendencies have been severely (and rightfully) tempered by the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan. The law of the playground is still valid on the global level: When the bully wants to play mean, there’s nothing to stop him.
Where does this leave us? I am a strong proponent of the journalistic use of social media, despite the obvious problems it entails (think verification, objectivity, etc). If there is information available, let’s get it out. “Bearing witness” seems entirely inadequate to stopping acts of violence, but it is rarely intended to do that. Bearing witness can instead help to set the stage for diplomatic pressure, judicial prosecution, and for future policies that aim to aid those who suffered. The challenge seems to be to stay attentive (or even disgusted) and not let bad news become normality, to witness suffering not in despair but as a call for action. “The world is full of suffering”, Helen Keller once wrote. “It is also full of overcoming.”
It might also mean that we have to shed the pretense of control. We – as individuals, and as nation-states – cannot expect to control events or turn good intentions into good realities. We are behind the wheel of history, but we are also passengers in the backseat. We have to be ready for the ugly, the unexpected, and the chaotic. An over-confidence in our convictions and predictions might easily blind us to the unpredictability of events and the possibility of sudden catastrophes. This explains the knee-jerk reaction I have when reading Thomas Friedman’s articles in the New York Times: They seem like attempts to sweep away the messiness of the world in a short 1000 words.
Maybe tweets and Youtube videos actually are a truer representation of the world – not just because they are locally produced but also because they are perpetually unfinished and evolving. There are no end credits to a live blog, only cliffhangers. And as long as the story continues, there’s hope for a happy ending.