If photographs help build collective outrage about violence, war, colonialism and genocide, they may also be helping to dismantle international norms. The one consistent fact about the horrifying images that have come out of Syria over the past 21 / 2 years is that in many cases, we don’t know who made them and what they depict. All we see are decontextualized cruelty and misery. Cynicism creeps in, and there is a natural tendency to push the images away as a kind of insoluble puzzle.
Our own government has exacerbated this photographic and moral crisis. The Iraq war was sold to the American people in part with carefully annotated satellite photos that purported to show evidence of weapons of mass destruction. Those images were misread or misrepresented, and when their verity dissolved, perhaps some of our fear of such weapons dissolved with it, too. When torture, as morally reprehensible as the use of chemical weapons, became official U.S. policy, cloaked in euphemisms about “enhanced interrogation” and “stress positions,” another red line was crossed in our understanding of international norms. Media organizations, including The Washington Post, kept many of the worst torture images from Abu Ghraib out of wide circulation, and the few that did make it through the rigors of self-censorship, we were assured, confirmed only some surreal, Gothic anomaly. Torture looked like late-night frat games, not a deadly policy of abuse.
So it is little wonder that Americans are uninterested in engaging with images of suffering children in Syria and unconcerned about the introduction of chemical weapons into the Syrian conflict. Long after she called for an ecology of images, Sontag despaired of the idea. “There isn’t going to be an ecology of images,” she wrote in “Regarding the Pain of Others.” There is no way “to ration horror, to keep fresh its ability to shock. And the horrors themselves are not going to abate.”
That is where we are now, in an ecosystem of images and an ecosystem of international decency that have been irremediably polluted.”
I’d say the chances of missile strikes are now less than one in ten. The sudden turn of events has already led the Syrian government to reverse its longstanding policy of denying that it possesses chemical weapons, a situation that would have Monty Python-like possibilities if not for the daily horrors. That move suggests the better possibilities of diplomacy. …
[E]ven if the plan works, Syria will be no closer to the fall of Assad or to his negotiated departure. The killing will go on. Death by gas might be taken off the table, but children and other human beings, by the thousands, will still be pulverized in indiscriminate shelling and burned to death by incendiary devices. There will be more to celebrate in Washington and at the United Nations than in Homs and Aleppo.
In the strange period since August 21st, when the poison gas attacks took place, the White House has seemed incapable of strategic thinking. The State Department seems incapable of coherent communication. Republicans who never raised a question about Iraq are now in full flight from the use of force because they don’t like the Commander-in-Chief. The United Nations can’t bring itself to condemn chemical weapons regardless of who’s using them. Assad’s war crime has turned into Obama’s embarrassment. Everything is upside down; nothing seems to be working as it should.”