The twentieth century that gave us totalitarianism and its dire outcroppings also gave us new ways of encompassing modern barbarisms. When the Soviet war correspondent Vasily Grossman contrived to capture the horrors of the Holocaust in his epic novel Life and Fate, he decided to describe what it was like for a child to die in one of Hitler’s gas chambers. (Grossman had been forced to imagine what it was like for his own mother to do so.)
It has been a bad week of thinking about dying children, be they in Newtown, Connecticut or in the Zaatari “children’s camp” in Jordan, where the temperature is dropping as fast as the population is rising. Accounting for the gulf in wealth, power and political ambition that separates two mass murderers, Bashar al-Assad and Adam Lanza, each has certainly managed to wreak devastation on the innocents meant to be most protected from harm. That one has had an entire nation as his quarry for ten years, the other a small elementary school for fewer than ten minutes, is incidental to those who survive the adolescent dead. All mothers might suffer in their own ways, but they all grieve the same. Our reaction to the prolonged extinction of humanity, and of future generations, in Syria and the brief but culturally paralyzing massacre in suburban America is the same paradoxical mixture of shock and self-recrimination. “How could anyone be capable of this?” competes with “We never learn” as reflex responses.
I’ve been staying with family in New York all week, and everyone agrees about the need for gun control in the United States but not about how, even in a country where a 20-year-old can kit himself out as a soldier of fortune on a disposable income, he could then bring himself to shoot up a classroom. As a culture, we are so transfixed by violence as to devote entire television series to the “special victims” of it, yet when it comes to the real thing, our capacity for imagination is easily exhausted.
No doubt the authors of the Second Amendment would have rethought their notions of negative liberty in light of the M-16 assault rifle, but something tells me that they were also better equipped at understanding the ineradicability and ingenuity of human evil. This is an ancient concept whose meaning has been undeservedly degraded in an age of the chemical imbalance theory of the psychopath and the broken home theory of the personality disorder. (At a roundtable discussion I participated in on Syria not long ago, a well-meaning but fatuous woman suggested that what Assad needed most was a good therapist.) Then again, “evil” was used to great effect by President Obama in memorializing the slain of Newtown, even if it remains strangely absent from his lexicon in talking about the slain of Homs and Idleb and Aleppo. Now must not be the time to politicize Syria, I guess.
When world affairs are your business, tragedy is, perforce. No one I know wants to hear that many classrooms of children are being pulverized weekly, or that young girls are being given sedatives as agents of their own government gang-rape them or shove mice into their vaginas. I didn’t do myself any favors with my homecoming by relaying the following story. There once was a 13-year-old boy who was kidnapped by the secret police—back when only the secret police and the army carried guns in Syria—only to have his corpse returned to his parents a month later. They discovered that their child had been used as a human ashtray and an object of target practice and that this was either before or after his penis had been cut off. That wasn’t the worst part, however. The boy’s father was then forced to appear on state television to praise the dictator responsible for his son’s mutilation and blame it all on phantom terrorists. Making a parent complicit in the murder of his progeny has been a hallmark of the sadistic totalitarian since the Old Testament. We never learn.
“When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter. And when he cried, the little children died in the streets,” was how Auden tellingly ended his Epitaph on a Tyrant. Two respectable senators who once laughed with Assad and made excuses for him are now set to become secretaries of State and Defense. I wonder if the little children of Syria are not quite done with their suffering yet.