The framing and representation of death in the Syrian war in the mainstream media plays a critical role in shaping our collective responses to the crisis.
Media coverage of the present conflict in Syria and Iraq revolves around an obsession with numbers. Since 2011, the death toll in Syria has continued its relentless ascent, faithfully reported by journalists outside the country: 191,000 dead, 9 million displaced, 8000 orphaned children, 1345 days of war.
We count the dead, and yet death itself remains somewhat abstract: a number on the page, a factor in the analysis, ammunition in political debate. The horror and suffering of the Syrian people remains faceless.
What do they mean, these numbers? They mask the acute suffering of those who live daily with the threat of bombs that may destroy their homes, of snipers that may destroy their families, of a war that continues to destroy their livelihoods. Our narratives of war rest on quantifiable outcomes, thereby obscuring the reality of life (and death) inside Syria today, and fundamentally dehumanizing the conflict.
To be sure, there have been a number of admirable efforts to present a human face of the Syrian conflict. However, these are mainly focused on the refugee population, often depicted as a collective mass of victims with no agency and no identity, left at the mercy of pre-determined political forces.
Indeed, part of the problem with media narratives of the Syrian conflict is rooted in the characterization of the Syrian people themselves. The victims of the Syrian conflict have almost ceased to be Syrian; rather, they are Sunni, Shi’a or Alawite; they are Christian, Kurdish or Druze. Viewing the conflict through a sectarian prism results in yet another abstraction – Syrian people are not individuals, they are representative of political and social groups taking part in a regional struggle for power and security.
It is this abstraction that enables Western audiences to process and comprehend the conflict in Syria. Media analysis is accompanied by a plethora of maps, infographics and statistics to help us to view the conflict in geopolitical context. However, this abstraction also results in an emotional distancing that shapes the way we respond to atrocity. When Bashar al-Assad unleashed chemical weapons on a civilian population, we did not question the fact that he was massacring innocent people, only the means by which he chose to do it.
In contrast, we may observe the visceral media and public reaction to the atrocities committed by the Islamic State. The Islamic State utilizes the media as a vehicle for their own propaganda: the sensationalism of death is mobilized for purposes of recruitment, and the mainstream press is complicit in this process. Death has become a spectacle, one to which we are primed to emotionally respond. Here, we view the brutality of murder; we witness the horror of war and the suffering of grieving families.
Death is no less brutal and no less horrific when perpetrated by the Syrian state. But unless our media acts a witness to the human suffering of the Syrian people the international community will remain unmoved. The dead may be counted, but they remain unseen.
Helen Flatley is a student of Middle East and Islamic Studies at the American University of Paris, specializing in the Syrian Uprising and Syrian national identity under the Baath regime.