FAWAZ TURKI

What took place on that day was an unspeakable atrocity beyond all rational understanding, possibly the worst in the year-long Syrian uprising: Dozens of innocent men, women and children were slaughtered in the Homs Sunni neighborhood of Karm el-Zeitoun by soldiers and armed government thugs, known as shabiha. They were randomly picked, shot and stabbed. Other victims had their houses burned down with bodies left under the rubble. This came soon after a month-long siege during which the city was bombarded mercilessly, resulting in the death of countless civilians who had cowered in their homes with little food, water, heat and medicine, many dying of unattended wounds.

The regime admitted the killings happened, but obscenely attributed them to “armed gangs,” the term it routinely uses for its opponents, who allegedly “filmed the bodies of their victims” in order to shore up rebel calls for “foreign interference in Syria.” In other words, don’t deny the crime, but deny the criminality of the perpetrator.

What is the source of this gratuitous violence, constituting by all counts a crime against humanity, inflicted on citizens by their own government? Surely there is more to it than the claim that Bashar Assad, the Syrian president, is responding to some Freudian impulse in him to outdo his dad, the late Hafez Assad, who exactly 30 years ago unleashed his military forces on the rebellious town of Hama where, in an operation lasting less than two weeks, they reportedly killed as many as 20,000 people and turned many of the town’s ancient neighborhoods into rubble. You may, if you wish, dismiss the Freudan angle here as wanton psychologizing. But one thing is plain: The Baathist regime under the rule of the Assad dynasty over the last 42 years has so normalized the practice of ruthlessness, cruelty and unrelenting repression that the unthikable, the heinous — say, torturing 8-year-old kids — becomes a routine act accepted as the way things are done.

After a while, a whole community is socialized to go along, its traditional attributes of compassion, morality and justice overwhelmed by the exercise of pervasive evil. As the German philosopher Hannah Arendt showed in her 1963 seminal work, The Banality of Evil, in history the diffusion of evil — of the murderous and profane kind directed at Syrians today — is not executed by fanatics and pschopaths but rather by ordinary men. These ordinary men, morphing into sadists, make an abstraction of the human beings they torture, maim and kill. Degrading the “other” while still assuming the mantle of being human yourself develops in close-knit reciprocity.

And Bashar Assad, an ophthalmologist, is indeed an “ordinary” man, complete with a pedestrian mind, driven to deny a hard truth, in this case that his people revile him, rather than face it, even if that means having to resort to repression to do it. But the constant infliction of repression on a society cannot be tolerated indefinitely, for it goes against the grain of the human condition. Patriotic rhetoric and Patrick Henry aside, there comes a time when a repressed community, gasping for breath, will collectively holler: Give me liberty or give me death.

To cite but a few cases in point, consider the numerous peasant revolts in pre-revolutionary France, the Continentals who fought against British colonialism in America in the 1770s, The Boxer Rebellion in China around the turn of the 20th Century, the April Rising in Ireland in 1916 and, closer to home, the Intifada in Palestine in 1987. When a regime is rotten, unjust or unresponsive to your collective needs, you will in due course rise up against it, and you do so with the knowledge that, after all, “this land is my land.”

 “This country belongs to the people who inhabit it,” said Abraham Lincoln about the need for Americans to be active participants in, not passive observers of their historical experience. “Whenever they grow weary of the existing government, they should exercise their constitutional right to overthrow it.” Ideally with ballots, but as a last resort with bullets.

Lincoln may as well have been referring to the Arab Spring in general and the Syrian uprising in particular. For Syrian rebels it boils down to this: If we can’t choose the way we live, we will choose the way we die. And for those of us on the outside looking in, it’s a crime not to lend these folks a helping hand, and do it as individuals, communities and governments. Lest we forget, we are all complicit in that which leaves us indifferent.

 –Arab News