Jeff Jacoby

IT WAS THE TORTURE of elementary-school students in Deraa that gave momentum to the current Syrian uprising against Bashar al-Assad's brutal regime. The children, some as young as 10, were picked up by security agents for scrawling antigovernment graffiti on a school wall. When they were released days later, there were cigarette burn marks on their bodies, and the fingernails had been pulled from their hands. Word of the torture spread, outraging Syrians and helping fuel further protest. The government's response has been a deadly crackdown with appalling new levels of cruelty.

"The stories we hear now are unimaginable in their brutality," a former Syrian intelligence officer who has turned against the regime told The Wall Street Journal recently. "It is not only to deter protesters. They enjoy hurting people for the sake of it." One such victim, a shopkeeper from Homs, was seized after leaving an antigovernment protest. As described by the Journal, the man was slashed with a scalpel on his back, then stitched up without anesthetic and beaten on the wounds. He was "kept naked and blindfolded in a room packed with detainees and excrement," where he listened to his cousin being burned with a poker, and was told to "kneel in prayer" before a portrait of Assad.

Syria, a human-rights hellhole where more than 1,000 protesters have been murdered in recent weeks, is among the "Worst of the Worst" -- the 17 countries (plus three territories) identified by Freedom House as the most repressive societies on earth. Founded in 1941 to promote freedom and democracy, Freedom House each year publishes a country-by-country survey of civil liberties and political rights in each country in the world. Those surveys show a world notably freer than it was 30 years ago, when the Iron Curtain still stood. But little of that light has penetrated to the nations needing it most.

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby is an Op-Ed writer for the Boston Globe, a radio political commentator, and a contributing columnist for