You hear the term “crimes against humanity” and imagine a whole movie reel of the most horrible atrocities ever committed by human hands. You draw up images of naked, starving, rail-thin children screaming in concentration camps or on rural Southeast Asian roads. You recall excerpts on genocide and fire-bombings and “tactical strikes.” You think of a handful of history’s worst moments, of the biggest and baddest things that ever happened.
When we talk about crimes against humanity it is not as easy to think about the big bad things that are happening now.
Distance allows us to make enough sense of barbarism to explain it away, to rationalize it enough that we can forget it. Proximity, however, forces us to reconcile again and again the irreconcilable travesty of it. When you see the evidence of brutality every day, you cannot neglect it. When you feel the tension of terror—a terror that lives and kills only miles away—there is no time or ability to merely rationalize; it must be felt. It demands attention.
I have never appreciated the horribleness of horror until coming to Lebanon, a beautiful country that today collects Syrians haphazardly dispersed by the crisis next door. I have not seen anyone die and I have not seen any bombs go off, but daily I see those who have.
Trauma is real. Numbness is real. Animosity is real. Three times since arriving I’ve heard Syrian mothers say that when Syrian children are given paper and crayons, they always draw pictures of war. I have never been much opposed to violent video games, but when I hear Syrian fathers talk sadly about how their sons play shoot-em-up games for hours on end (when they have electricity, of course), I sense the connection is real. I’m told children in Syria don’t play tag; they play ‘Daesh and Army,’ which is cowboys and Indians on steroids. This reality is a crime against humanity.
In the middle of January, one of the remaining churches in Aleppo was hit by rockets only two hours after Sunday service ended. It took three days for me to find out it was my friend’s church, not because it was a secret, but because it was so matter-of-fact, so unsurprising as to be nearly normal.
Syrian friends of mine will tell me war stories. They never cry. Sometimes they even laugh. But mostly they just tell it like they tell what they had for lunch. Approaching its sixth year, the Syrian war has become so monotonously awful as to be merely monotony.
Recently I spoke to a woman from Damascus, a city now bursting with internally displaced people who are largely invisible because they pack two families to a room in war-welted suburbia. She said for the first three years of the war, her family stopped taking the summer vacation that had been an annual tradition for decades. In the last two years they started again—vacation from the war, in the war. “We could die at any moment, but we cannot live like that.”
I have seen refugees cry from sadness, but rarely. I have seen uprooted people curse the forces that uprooted them, but rarely. Mostly I see people who want hope, or at least want to want it, but can’t because they are so fixated on simple survival. Forced hopelessness, too, is a crime against humanity.
Barrel bombs, chemical weapons, crucifixions, beheadings, mass kidnappings, sieges to the point of starvation: these are the makings of war criminals. And the anxiety, trauma, disorientation, displacement, fear and even the inability to fear that results: these may be crimes, too.
There is a crime against humanity that is happening now, at this moment, in Syria. If you look, you will see. If you look, you cannot look away. We are all witnesses. We must be.