Images, Ethics, Action: Online Video, Human Rights and Civic Activism in Syria

Thomas Keenan moderates a discussion with our friends, the great Yassin al Haj Saleh and Eliot Higgins (Brown Moses), on the situation in Syria.

We live in a world where images of violence and atrocity regularly flow from battlefields and streets in conflict, and circulate with increasing velocity. Whether they are intended to terrorize, shock, expose wrongdoing, “raise awareness,” or simply show what’s happening — and whether they are made by journalists, fighters, activists, citizens, or even satellites and surveillance cameras — they appear before us and ask us to respond. They raise not only political questions, but ethical ones as well. They are ultimately addressed to public opinion, and their fate is uncertain. Do they end in action, engagement, avoidance, prejudice, empathy, revulsion, memory or oblivion?

This discussion focused on images from the war in Syria, and explored a range of things to do with them.

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War and Pieces: Brown Moses on Social Media Investigations

Eliot Higgins (aka Brown Moses), founder of Bellingcat, at Google Ideas, Google for Media, and the OCCRP’s Investigathon in New York, talking about open source investigation into the Buk missile launcher linked to the downing of MH17, showing how he was able to trace it to Russia.

How not to argue against war

children killed in ghouta
Two recent articles I’d like to bring to readers’ attention. The first is my debut article for Al Jazeera America in which I write about the misuse of the Iraq analogy:

Of the many lessons Iraq taught, only two are fundamental: one must not hype threats that don’t exist, and one must not introduce war where there is none. The former diminishes public trust; the latter creates human suffering it is supposed to prevent. Neither is applicable to Syria. The regime has shown both the capability and the willingness to deploy proscribed weapons, and Syria is already at war.

In yesterday’s frontpage article for The New Republic I write that in their justifiable concern over (the highly improbable) military intervention in Syria, some opponents of the policy (or Obama) have crossed the line into victim-blaming.

There are perfectly good arguments for opposing military intervention—and some have been made persuasively, on moral or national interest grounds. There are also good reasons to be skeptical of humanitarian conceits that might be used to justify intervention. But there is more than a fine line between skepticism and cynicism—and not even the otherwise noble concern with preventing war, or the less-noble determination to oppose a president regardless of policy, justifies excusing the Assad regime’s well-documented crimes. While war must always be an option of last resort, and it is right to be concerned about its unforeseen consequences (as long as one is mindful that inaction too has consequences), the national debate over whether to wage it in Syria is not helped by spreading ideologically driven lies.

My argument that the relevant analogy is not Iraq but Bosnia has also been echoed by Rory Stewart in what I consider the most sensible article written by a non-Syrian on the subject so far.

As regards the regime’s use of chemical weapons in last month’s massacre, those who think the jury’s still out might want to read Human Rights Watch’s detailed analysis of the regime’s culpability which was already well established by respected independent munitions experts like Eliot Higgins. As regards the regime’s motivations for using CW, check out Kim Sengupta’s stellar report on developments in Ghouta before and after the attack.