A grim axiom of old-time journalism maintains that “if it bleeds, it leads.” The mass audience pays attention to violence – so goes the assumption. Since the news media desperately seeks an audience, it gravitates toward violence, at times ceding the information agenda to those who perpetrate it.
Bad actors the world over know this weakness of the news media, and play to it ruthlessly. They riot and kill to get their message across. In the bizarre controversy over the Danish cartoons of Muhammad, a number of governments and groups worked to stoke up “Muslim rage” against the West – yet nobody paid much attention until violence erupted. While the cartoons, by themselves, failed to inspire much rage, the upheavals and murders inspired a great deal of coverage for a particular political attitude.
The Al Qaeda strategy of perpetrating spectacular atrocities was shaped entirely by media considerations. Osama Bin Laden combined the characteristics of the mass murderer and the PR man, a mix by no means unique in history. He gambled that the media would find the power and influence of the perpetrators to be proportionate to the damage inflicted, and he succeeded probably beyond his wildest hopes. Endlessly cycled images of the twin towers collapsing and New Yorkers fleeing in panic conveyed an unmistakable message: the attackers, by the evidence of our own eyes, were now America’s most dangerous enemy. This, of course, mirrored Bin Laden’s claims for his small band of terrorists.
To those unwilling to trade the death of innocents for headlines, the alternative is dire: they can write their message in their own blood. For months, this has been the communications strategy followed by the insurgents in Syria. It has been grimly successful.
The first large-scale anti-regime demonstrations in Syria took place in mid-March. A great many events have occupied the world’s attention since that date – the killing of Bin Laden by Seal Team Six, for example, and the near-collapse of the Eurozone under a mountain of sovereign debt. Muammar Qaddafi of Libya was first overthrown, then captured and executed. Waves of mindless looters overwhelmed the forces of law and order in London. Republicans and Democrats battled in Congress. Entertainers made news, as did professional sports competitions.
For rebels from a country Al Jazeera called, as late as February, a “kingdom of silence,” the problem was how to gain a voice and shape a political message which would be heard above the noise of global events. By default, that message became a morality play about the Assad regime. Despite Al Jazeera’s equivocations, Assad was shown to be no different from the corrupt despots of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya who were pulled down by their own people. Syria belonged with the great Arab uprisings of 2011.
That was the message. From the first, the voice was the literal voice of the Syrian people, magnified by YouTube. The regime’s total control over the country’s media, and its expulsion of foreign journalists, were circumvented by a barrage of cell phone videos which found their way to the web.
Their effect was immediate. The size and vigor of the protesting crowds caught observers by surprise. So did the ferocity of the regime’s repression, unleashed in late March and captured in hundreds of terrifying videos. This theater of violence overturned long-established narratives. In January, Bashar Assad had boasted that Syria remained “stable” because his government’s anti-Israel stance coincided with “the beliefs of the people.” In February, Al Jazeera could still quote Assad apologist Joshua Landis saying, “Unlike Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak . . . Bashar al-Assad is young. Young people are quite proud of him.”
By mid-April, when Al Jazeera inaugurated its Syria uprising blog, neither of these propositions seemed remotely credible.
Since then, regime and protesters have been locked in a deadly embrace. Syrian military and security forces have besieged entire cities, slaughtering indiscriminately. The number of deaths is estimated by the UN at 3,500 and by the Syrian opposition at 4,500. Violent repression has reduced the size but not the energy of the demonstrations. These continue every day. A new problem faced by the opposition, however, is that struggles of attrition are intrinsically dull and un-newsworthy. To retain the attention of a distracted global public, it must do more than fight Assad’s powerful repressive machinery to a tie.
The response has been to personalize the dead. Whatever their total number, they must be mourned one at a time. Videos from Syria have evolved over time, with proportionately fewer images of cheering crowds and more of weeping families surrounding the bloody faces of the dead. The latter include women and children, but are mostly young men – some with the top of their skulls blown clean away, others with torn limbs and mangled torsos, but all strangely calm, at peace in the fratricidal storm.
Syria on YouTube today resembles a house of the dead.
I am not aware how these videos are uploaded to the web. I only know the last link in the dissemination chain: the Twitter stream of Ahmed al Omran, the eponymous blogger of Saudi Jeans whom I have followed intermittently over the years. Omran, obviously a Saudi, is a worthy subject for a future post on this blog. He now works as a “production assistant” for social media at NPR, and lives in Washington DC. Like NPR’s Andy Carvin, he has taken on the role of curator for the flood of content coming out of Syria.
Digital curation too is a topic for another day. With Omran, it means producing a vast volume of tweeted links to Syrian YouTube videos, many highlighted by suggestive upper-case warnings: “GRAPHIC,” “EXTREMELY GRAPHIC,” “HEARTBREAKING.” The effect is not unlike that of the “adults only” rating on teens. It becomes difficult to resist clicking on the link to experience the horror within.
With the faces of the dead pleading its case, the Syrian opposition has made remarkable advances in the last few weeks. A poll by the Arab American Institute found that the “overwhelming majority of Arabs in the six nations covered in the survey side with those Syrians demonstrating against the government (from 83% in Morocco to 100% in Jordan).” The pan-Arab dailies are also unanimously in favor of the demonstrators. Al Jazeera, after an initial wobble, has resumed more typical anti-regime coverage.
And suddenly the opinion of the people matters to Arab rulers. Most have heard premonitory rumbles, and are now maneuvering to avoid the fate of Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Qaddafi. The unpopularity of the Assad regime – the barbarities it commits every day, as witnessed by cell phone videocams and propagated by YouTube – make it a tempting target for political posturing. Early this week, the Arab League approved sanctions against Syria. The League is a club of kings and dictators, but the members sought to strike a pleasing note with the Arab public. Such harsh treatment of a fellow despot, observers agree, was unprecedented.
Soon after the Arab League decision, Turkey’s government, long a friend and ally of Syria, imposed sanctions of its own. The UN Human Rights Council just released a document accusing the Syrian regime of “crimes against humanity.” The OIC, an organization of Muslim countries, has urged that it “immediately stop using excessive force.” Meanwhile the French are making overtures to the opposition umbrella group. Except for Iran, Assad is now pretty much alone in the world.
In Syria, the dead remain politically alive. They rivet the attention of the Arab public and the world beyond, and they render visual testimony of the illegitimacy of their rulers. To the opposition, they have become a stockpile of moral justification. Despite the promise by the opposition leadership to preserve “the peaceful nature of the popular revolution,” an armed rebellion has been organized by deserters from the military. This has attracted media curiosity but little criticism, and has been reported as a sign of weakness for the regime rather than a breach of trust by the opposition. The daily parade of the dead has justified violent resistance.
Conversely, the choices of Syria’s rulers are circumscribed by the knowledge that their victims will accuse them from beyond the grave. It is one thing to commit mass murder behind a drawn curtain, as done without negative consequences by Bashar Assad’s father in the city of Hama. It is quite another to do so in front of an audience – to become the guilty party in a crime witnessed by the world. From a strictly geopolitical perspective, it invites foreign intervention on humanitarian grounds, on the Libyan model. This is the regime’s predicament: the more it kills to survive, the greater the host of gruesome images which will perturb the conscience of the Arab and global publics.