“The pyramid of martyrs haunts the Earth.” Hearing the latest from Aleppo this morning, this line from a wartime poem by René Char comes back to me like a slap in the face. And I feel shame.
Not for Russian President Vladimir Putin, that vulgar little czar, that capo of a gangster state who, between photo shoots and displays of testosterone, sends his planes to bomb the ruins of a city. To him, Aleppo is nothing more than another theater for his furious narcissism.
Nor for Syrian President Bashar Assad, behind whose leaden silhouette lies the vilest, darkest, most craven soul of our time. Men of his sort long ago resigned from the human race; eventually he will have to answer to humanity for his crimes.
No, I am ashamed of myself because I pled, cried in the wilderness, wrote countless columns and screeds — only to find myself face-to-face with my impotence, choking on my anger.
But I am also ashamed of you — of all of us — because today, in 2016, there are still people who are treated as game, chased because they still have two arms, two legs, a head and have not yet been converted into the heaps of bone, gut and muscle that the Syrian government and its allies seek to reduce them; shame because, in the face of this cruel game, we have done next to nothing and had precious little to say.
I am ashamed because, on this Earth, there are people who can no longer think or hope or love; people to whom all that is left is to tremble and run and then, the next day, to tremble and run again; people who have nothing but their own bodies with which to shield their children from the fire and gas that will soon consume them all. And, in the face of this spectacle, we are witnesses who will not even acknowledge that we are playing the game of “See No Evil, Hear No Evil.”
Are we no longer moored to reality? Have we become habituated to the forced suffering of others? Do we see it as a circus in which, from the stands, we permit ourselves the guilty pleasure of watching the agony of ordinary people, not gladiators? Or is it just the relief one feels at being safe and warm at home as the rain pelts down outside? Except, in this case, what’s pelting down is bombs.
I am ashamed of the rote reports on the radio this morning and on the news all last night: the anesthetized commentary, the unvarying “analysis.” I am ashamed of the apathetic experts, the pseudo-scholars ever careful not to betray a hint of anger or panic. I am ashamed because there comes a moment when the redundant platitudes (death, death and more death) convert the speakers and the listeners into accomplices.
I am ashamed of the United Nations, whose resolution was introduced just as the curtain was falling, when little remained to be done but to count the dead and, soon enough, to sort the “refugees.”
I am ashamed of this new League of Nations and its Chamberlains who chatter, while in Aleppo today and in Idlib tomorrow, our brothers and sisters in humanity are blasted with bombs, riddled with bullets and drained of their blood.
I am ashamed of the cold Chinese and Russian monsters of the so-called U.N. Security Council who had the audacity to veto the ceasefire resolution. They did so as the planes leveled one neighborhood after another, block by block; as each target exploded and collapsed; as men, women and children clung together in a terrifying communion; and as the few who survived these oceans of blood were executed or sent off to torture chambers.
I feel shame and sadness for those who tried to salvage some honor by delivering yet another speech of condemnation and indignation. I feel shame for the honorable ambassadors who tried, within the vile bunker that the U.N.’s New York headquarters has become, to reach the icy men and prevent them, this time, from raising their plump little hands to say, “No, there’s nothing wrong, really, with skewering or shredding tens of thousands of bodies. How does one live when, after a night spent watching the vetoers (that is, the bombers) block once again your last appeal, you discover, as you make your way home in the early hours of the morning, that your step is heavy not from ordinary fatigue but from the human pulp clinging to your sole?
I feel the shame of President Barack Obama and the “red line” policy that he abandoned on August 30, 2013, in a palinode that shocked his allies. Little did he realize how truly he had spoken: His line was indeed red ― the red of a trail of blood.
I am ashamed of President-elect Donald Trump, who showed his colors even more clearly in declaring that those young people destined to die, those who, for the moment, still post their reports on YouTube and somehow find the strength to send us their humble “thanks,” will be objects of a deal — that was the word he used — with his buddy Putin.
I am ashamed that a narrow majority of those whom I must continue to call my fellow citizens appear to deem Assad — this killer with the face of your son-in-law; this assassin at first considered to be meek and mild; this man who, many thought, would not be king (let alone a tyrant); this modern version of Edward VIII, one who does not abdicate but stays on the throne and delivers his country to Hitler; this monstrous yuppie; this jet-setting Pol Pot — as the lesser of two evils when juxtaposed with the so-called Islamic State.
I am ashamed of French presidential candidate François Fillon and those members of the Chamber of Deputies (Jacques Myard, Thierry Mariani and others) who insist on explaining to us, based on their sordid calculations of the value of lives, that the slaughter in Aleppo is part of the price we must pay to vanquish terrorism.
I am ashamed of all that because we no doubt have the television coverage, the public discourse, the representatives and the candidates that we deserve.
We are defeatists mistaking ourselves for people of peace.
We are sated Europeans too ready to disavow our own values as the first great crime against humanity of the 21st century, which is to say the first great crime against each and every one of us, rushes to its climax.
We are participants in a contemporary hecatomb and, as was the case with the cries from the death camps a lifetime ago, few, so few, have found the courage to insist that we must make war against war and bomb the bombers.
The pyramid of martyrs indeed haunts the Earth. And the Earth groans under its weight. That is where we stand.
Translated from French by Steven B. Kennedy.