Dehumanizing the Inhuman: Ghouta, Halabja and Crimes Against 'Humanity'

09/25/2013 05:41 pm ET | Updated Nov 25, 2013

By universalizing the Ghouta chemical attacks as crimes against 'humanity' we are in danger of veiling -- and, as we did with Halabja, forgetting -- the true scale of human destruction that lies at its heart.

Not many people have visited the site of a chemical gas attack against a civilian population. This is hardly surprising. There are -- thankfully -- only a handful of locations in the world to hold such tragic claims, and those that do -- understandably -- don't exactly pull in much passing tourist trade.

I am, however, one of the few to have been to such a place. It wasn't a trip I relished, nor an experience I enjoyed, and, as far as traveling tales go, I've found it's not exactly the best anecdote to kick-off conversations at cocktail parties.

Two months ago I was in Halabja, Iraq. Once a thriving, bustling market hub on a main trading route to the Iranian border, it now stands as a desolate, barren shell of a town. Its fate as such was consigned to history twenty-five years ago when aerial bombardments of mustard gas and nerve agents, dropped on the command of Saddam Hussein, massacred 5,000 Iraqis. The majority were civilians, most unarmed women and children.

Halabja was the first time a 'government' had used chemical weapons against its own people. It shocked those who cared to listen, sickened those who bothered to see.

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But within barely a matter of years, the world had moved on. The magnitude of human loss, the destruction the attack had wrought on a community, a population, a people, had been forgotten. By 1990, it was just another ready-to-hand example invoked by world actors when arguing for or against intervention after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Halabja had become a tagline to accompany a political argument. The faces of its victims had been erased from memory, and -- crucially -- the fate its survivors had been forgotten.

One month ago sarin-based chemical weapons were dropped from the skies above the Ghouta district surrounding Damascus, Syria. According to a US intelligence assessment, some 1,500 perished, including 426 children, and other aid groups such as Médecins Sans Frontières have recorded treating thousands more for chemical-related injuries.

But, barely four weeks after this atrocity, we are close to committing the very same mistakes we made with Halabja all over again.

Already Ghouta has been relegated to the status of an 'event', first and foremost, of global interest and concern. That there is concern is welcome, but it is concern of a peculiarly curious kind. The world is, rightly, appalled at the barbarity of events (except, it seems, the Russian government), but the crime has been appropriated by that world as one committed against it. The crime is now one against 'humanity' -- as if we're all victims too. Reading politicians' speeches or commentators' op-eds, the true horror of Ghouta seems no longer to be in the tangible loss of human lives on Syrian soil and that enduring scars that will forever remain. The horror is now in the 'concept' of chemical warfare against civilians; in the 'idea' that the use of chemical weapons against innocent men, women and children is a regression in the upward trajectory of human progress. Somehow it's now as much about us as it is about Syrians.

The inhumanity of the Ghouta attacks has been subsumed within a series of larger, geopolitical questions: What is the world, what is the UK, what is the U.S. to do? But what Halabja ought to have taught us is that by universalizing the events in Ghouta as crimes against 'humanity', and by using them as such to answer these questions, we lose sight of the moral significance of the particulars in the process.

By appropriating the attack as simply another event to be pawned in a global political debate, we are inadvertently dehumanizing the unfathomably inhuman acts we are seeking to censure, and veiling the true scale of human destruction that lies at their heart.

To this day, Halabja remains a community without a future. Few words can describe the menacing hopelessness of a town flanked by mass graves and whose centerpiece is a macabre totem to 5,000 souls extinguished by a sweet-smelling cloud that tasted of apples.

It stands as a reminder that chemical warfare against innocent civilians scars the conscience and collective memory of a nation long after the rest of the world has moved on.

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