The AP photo showed a Syrian mother holding her wounded son somewhere near the Lebanese border. That's what the caption said. Yet the scene seemed as old as human suffering itself. It was a picture of every stricken mother and child in every burnt-over war zone.
It could have been a contemporary reproduction of Michelangelo's Pieta in St. Peter's Basilica. Whether in stone or flesh, the passion continues. In Syria, it continues every day. Tomorrow there will be another picture, another massacre, another carefully worded UN resolution. And nothing will change. Till it is changed. By main force.
That day is coming, closer and closer. But when? Not so long as the world depends on the United Nations to prevent such scenes, and looks to the UN's Kofi Annan to protect the innocent. The killing did not stop in Rwanda when the self-same Kofi Annan presided over a massive pogrom there in 1994. A year later, he would do much the same at Srebrenica, the Bosnian town where thousands were murdered while the UN's "peacekeepers" stood uselessly by. Wherever the man goes, slaughter is sure to follow.
Calm, dignified, soft-spoken, aging ever so gracefully, Mr. Annan looks like the Nobel laureate he is. His peace prize testifies to his "work for a better organized and more peaceful world," to quote the citation. His is an image untouched by the violence he always seems to bring in his homicidal wake. Call it the Dorian Gray syndrome.
The oxymoron of the day remains: international law. For there is no law if there is no will to enforce it, and no power behind it. Then it becomes just another meaningless phrase invoked by the kind of diplomats who pass these endless resolutions at the United Nations, futile as they are wordy. Such is the fate of resolutions without resolve.
All such expressions of Deep Concern might as well be coming from the Rt. Honourable Neville Chamberlain, M.P., circa 1938, when he, too, was going to bring peace in our time.
C.S. Lewis said it: "The greatest evil is not done now in those sordid 'dens of crime' that Dickens loved to paint. It is not even done in concentration and labor camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice."
The routine hasn't changed much since Munich. A different cast of characters follows the same old script. Distinguished statesmen accept peace prizes while assuring war. It is all very proper, polite and carefully modulated. No one loses his temper. They're professionals, after all. It is only the victims who scream.
The world watches the slaughter but does little to stop it. Words like security and justice fill the air, but they resound hollow. And always will as long as there is no connection between justice and power, between law and its enforcement. One without the other is only a fraud. And the fraud goes on. As if we had learned nothing from the past, and insist on repeating its every bloody failure.
Santayana's observation has become a cliche because it's become so regularly applicable: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
Every such crisis is different, yet the same. What they have in common is the wanton brutality of those in power. The kind of brutality Bashar al-Assad's regime practices ever more openly in Syria. The kind of brutality that cannot be prevented by words alone. Actions, as always, speak louder.
How long, oh, how long will the world wait before acting? Or will it continue to dawdle and equivocate and generally do too little too late, marking time instead of making use of it?
As still another crisis in the Middle East was developing some years back, the clear-eyed and plain-spoken Margaret Thatcher -- yes, the Iron Lady herself, how we need such a leader! -- had some sage advice for the world, advice that never seems to go out of date:
Now is no time to go wobbly.