Fintan O’Toole: Why the silence? What’s outrageous in Gaza is no less so in Aleppo
American indifference to “collateral damage” no more evil than Russian cynicism about the deaths of about 320 civilians, including 100 children, since ceasefire ended
The United States and Israel are bombing an ancient city, targeting hospitals and slaughtering children, women and other non-combatants. All across Europe, ordinary people are appalled. Protest marches to the US and Israeli embassies attract hundreds of thousands of people, denouncing these crimes against humanity. But what if the perpetrators are Russia and the Assad regime in Syria? Protests against the bombing of Aleppo, such as that in Dublin last weekend, have been small and muted. Why are Russian war crimes so much less obnoxious than American atrocities?
On Vimeo, there’s a short film of a demonstration against the Aleppo bombing at the Russian embassy in Dublin on August 27th, led by the veteran peace campaigner Brendan Butler. It is a very fine gesture by compassionate and concerned people. But I counted the crowd stretching a banner across the entrance to the embassy. It didn’t take long – there are 14 people. One of them is a young boy with a poster that says “This isn’t happening in a galaxy far, far away”. But it might as well be. In the film, Valerie Hughes of the Irish Syria Solidarity Movement makes the point that the Seanad was recalled when Israel bombed Gaza in July 2014, but that nobody at the time was calling for a recall of the Oireachtas to discuss the Aleppo crisis.
O’Connell Street rallyThere was a slightly larger rally in O’Connell Street in Dublin last Saturday – though many of the demonstrators were Syrian – and another protest at the Russian embassy is planned for Thursday evening. But the number of protesters remains relatively low and political attention to Aleppo is consequently minimal.
Last week, the Taoiseach told the Dáil that the city is “in the process of being obliterated”. But what followed this stark statement was pure waffle: “The politics of the situation is that Russia and Iran support President Assad and America and the EU support the unofficial opposition and rebels. Turkey has a problem with the Kurds. Deputy Micheál Martin is quite right that at the European Council meeting, there was a proposition that there should be a European Union policy particular to the eastern Balkans, which is now suffering more from the influence of Russia than of the European Union or the United Nations. Those are matters we need to talk about.” A Syrian city being obliterated becomes something to do with the eastern Balkans.
The Taoiseach feels free to speak so vaguely about a continuing massacre of defenceless civilians because he is under little pressure to articulate any coherent response to the atrocities. Aleppo is simply not a big issue. And it is hard to avoid the conclusion that it’s not a big issue because neither the US nor Israel is doing the killing. Look, for example, at the website of the Irish Anti-War Movement, which has organised successful protests against the Iraq war and “US-Israeli war crimes”. It has no mention of Aleppo – the only protest it has been urging members to attend was a demonstration against a football game last week between Dundalk and Israeli side Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Selective outrageWhy the selective outrage? There are, I suppose, two possible justifications. One is that the United States and Israel are in some sense “us”. We have very close ties to the US and Israel is a quasi-European country. So there is arguably a greater moral obligation to stand up against the crimes of governments to which we are allied. The other justification is that the US and Israel are relatively open societies and therefore susceptible to international opinion and public pressure in a way that Russia or the Assad regime are not. Protest against the latter is therefore likely to be inconsequential. Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad are probably not going to stop dropping cluster bombs, barrel bombs and phosphorous bombs and firing artillery at civilians even if millions of westerners take to the streets.
There may be something in both arguments, but it is not enough to justify the silence. Russia is a permanent member of the United Nations security council and therefore supposedly one of the pillars of international law. And even though protests against Putin and Assad may be ineffective, they are necessary if protest itself is to remain valid. Human rights mean nothing if they are not granted to all humans and rage at the abuse of these rights is rendered illegitimate if it is conditional on the identity of the abuser. You can’t hope to have any credibility if you shake your fist at the ugly American while ignoring the ugly Russian or react in entirely different ways to Israeli bombing of Gaza than to Saudi bombing of civilians in Yemen.
Today’s indifference will be tomorrow’s whataboutery. Next time there is reason to speak out against some atrocity committed by the US or Israel, the reply will be – “What about Aleppo? You weren’t so upset about that.” This, they will say, proves that criticism is motivated purely by anti-American or anti-Israeli sentiment. The only defence against these accusations is consistency. What’s outrageous in Gaza is no less so in Aleppo. American indifference to “collateral damage” is no more evil than Russian cynicism about the deaths of about 320 civilians, including a hundred children, in Aleppo since the ceasefire ended on September 19th.
Crimes are crimes. Atrocities are atrocities. But indignation that is turned on and off will end up looking very like posturing.