Walking through Times Square yesterday, I came across an anti-Assad demonstration in which several young people held a "Syria is bleeding" sign and also engaged in anti-war street theater. They handed out flyers giving the latest grim statistics: nearly 3,000 people have been killed and several thousand detained, according to Human Rights Watch (though hard to verify). The flyer indicated that far from feeling powerless, the average passer-by should get involved and use social media to make sure the pressure stays on the Assad regime to end the violence. Indeed, under my personal twitter account "Staci_Strobl" I had been tweeting about the violence in Syria, sharing information with various Arab Spring activists, and lamenting the terrible tragedy of Homs, a city being pummeled by its own government. But I was feeling the potential powerlessness of social media in the face of Assad's weeks-long war crime. My tweets were largely being shared with other like-minded people and it was not clear whether they offered anything except perhaps moral support for the Syrian people also using twitter.
Further, I was still traumatized by the video of young boy in a Homs field hospital who had his jaw blown off by a rocket attack but miraculously clung to life for a couple of days before passing away. Because the boy seemed alert yet stunned in the video, and the fact that the lower half of his face had been ripped from him, the video was particularly gruesome and disturbing. The video had been making the Arab Spring activist rounds on twitter on April 10, 2012, shocking and horrifying even hardened souls. Andy Carvin of NPR discussed his decision to tweet the video, which he received from Syrians sources, with On the Media:
"I did Tweet it because I thought it was important to give the link some context. I found out about it because a number of contacts from Syria and other people were sending it to me on Twitter. ...And so, part of my calculus was to share it with my followers and say in very blunt terms, "This is footage of a boy whose jaw has been blown off." And I also said, "It's not enough to call this graphic; I think it's an abomination." I don't use those words lightly, and my Twitter followers know that."
For me, it wasn't so much the context-- quite simply a dictator attempting to destroy cities of people because they seek greater democratization-- but rather the video's immediate humanization of a distant conflict that gave it such gravitas. No matter whether or not someone was predisposed to care about the Syrian people, after seeing this video of a child suffering so horribly it would be hard not to care and not to cry out against Assad's brutal attacks. Indeed the video may someday be powerful evidence of war crimes in the event Assad is ever brought to justice.
On the other handd, one twitter activist chided twitter users who did not care much care about Syria until the horrible images came along, suggesting that consciousness-raising based on emotional reactions is short-lived and even superficial. Will these concerned tweeters be around to raise the alarm once the shock of the images wears off?
Similarly, in terms of ever being used in a court of law, such images have often been viewed by courts as prejudicial, bringing emotion into what should be a process of more rational fact-finding by judges or juries. Often courts have to weigh the prejudicial effect versus the probative value (whether the display helps to show whether the crime in question was more or less likely to have happened at the hands of the accused). Defense Attorney Rich Meehan discusses some of the challenges of graphic evidence in American criminal cases on his blog Due Process.
So whereas in watching the video from Homs I felt a sense of personal powerlessness, on the other hand, the wide dissemination of such a video signals the social and collective power of new media in documenting abuses. Because anyone with a cell phone is able to record and share any event, perhaps it will be that much harder for such injustices to stay hidden. It is with this sharing in mind that I post my own pictures here of yesterday's "Syria is bleeding" demonstration in Times Square. Although I still feel personally powerless to change the grim reality in Syria, I commit myself to at the very least doing my small part in keeping the images and information about Assad's war crimes out in public view. And certainly, the value of photographs always have historical importance-- one need only look to the photographic evidence of the Nazi Holocaust to know its importance in combating Holocaust deniers. And unfortunately, after mass atrocities, there are always deniers.