I often say that being a journalist and working with the news as much as I do has desensitised me. Political scandals, hospital failings, rigged elections, death and disease – this is what we are confronted with on a daily basis. Shock turns to surprise which in turn becomes cynicism. Analysing the news becomes more natural than being upset by it.
But sometimes the emotional response comes first. Every now and then a photo, a video or the first sentence of an article will send shivers down the spine of even the most hardened reporter. Maybe even Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East editor, has these moments. I think the entire journalistic community did this week, when we saw this photo from Syria:
Of course, what is horrific about this picture is that all the bodies are children, some just toddlers. But horror and surprise are different things; and everyone knew that countless children have already died in this war. The real shock of this picture is the complete lack of blood.
On Wednesday, around 600 people living in Damascus’s suburbs were killed by a nerve agent attack. They died of seizures and an inability to breath. Hundreds more are seriously ill, and there are few ways of alleviating their suffering now that stocks of anti-toxin medicine are running out. Footage of the sick and dying has flooded out of the country. Various experts have verified the film, saying that it would be impossible to teach young children to fake a fit convincingly or narrow their pupils.
Nevertheless, there is an ominous feeling that not all may be as it first appears. Why would Assad deploy chemical weapons when UN monitors are in the country investigating alleged previous instances of their use? Does he have such blatant disregard for the international community that he just doesn’t care (which would be unsurprising, given the lack of attention it’s paid recently)? Or, as some suggest, did the rebels unleash the poison themselves in a bid to change the game and force the US or NATO to intervene on their side? The on-going stale mate only provides the regime time to build up strength while weakening the rebels, giving them a motive. And the rebels could have won control of some chemical weapons stock when they captured army basis, giving them a means.
I am unconvinced. Since the attack, the regime’s men have been bombarding the afflicted areas with conventional mortar fire. This has made it impossible for the UN monitors to investigate Tuesday’s atrocity and implies that Assad does indeed have something to hide. Even so, the question remains: why did the regime strike now? Until we know the answer, governments around the world will be haunted by the rows of corpses in too-white sheets.