The posture of the grieving parent, holding up a dead or dying child to provoke the conscience of the world, has appeared again — in images from Syria that show the consequences of a chemical weapons attack allegedly committed by the regime of Bashar al-Assad. In a compilation of videos shown to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Sept. 5, a man addresses the camera as he holds the limp body of a child — probably a girl. The shirt is pulled up, the mouth slightly open, the hair disheveled. She is clearly dead, though close enough to life that one can imagine she might wake up, shake off her torpor and go out to play.
In a speech to the nation on Tuesday, President Obama referred to those videos and adopted the same posture, rhetorically holding up dead children as an essential casus belli in his case for a strike against Assad’s government. Seven times in his brief speech he referred to children, “children lying in rows, killed by poison gas,” “a father clutching his dead children, imploring them to get up and walk,” “children writhing in pain and going still on a cold hospital floor.”
Even more striking than his stark description was his insistence that we look, that we seek out the videos — available through a link on the White House Web site — watch them and allow their power to shape our judgment about possible military intervention in the Syrian civil war.
And yet, no matter what one thinks of a military strike against Assad, it is remarkable how little outrage these images have provoked. The president repeated the word “children,” brought his listeners back to images of suffering young people, in part because those images haven’t sunk in. In some fundamental way, we haven’t really seen them.
But it’s not clear that even if we did look at these dark, grainy and chaotic videos, that would change things. Already, Americans overwhelmingly believe that Assad used chemical weapons, yet public opinion remains resolutely opposed to military intervention in Syria.
We have arrived at a double crisis: a dissolution of agreement about what is civilized behavior and a dissolution of faith in the meaning of images — a crisis of politics and a crisis of representation. Given how closely photography and video have been linked to defining those international norms, this is a frightening moment.
Images of children suffering form the ultimate emotional argument, compelling us to move from sentiment to action, from the particular to the universal, from passivity to engagement. In the past century and a half, we have credited photographs of dead, wounded or starving children with galvanizing political opinion — against an unpopular war in Vietnam and for humanitarian interventions in Africa.