Opinion |

2016's Biggest Distractions: What We Talked About When We Didn't Talk About Aleppo

As images and stories from Aleppo momentarily flood our Facebook and Twitter feeds, it’s worthy to remember what we talked about when we didn’t focus on the genocide we all knew was taking place | Opinion

Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter

In September, Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson forgot (or simply didn’t know) what Aleppo is.

“What is Aleppo?” Johnson said to MSNBC commentator Mike Barnicle, who asked him how he (as president) would address the humanitarian crisis in Syria’s largest city.

Johnson’s blunder doomed his already-doomed presidential campaign. It resulted in the term “Aleppo moment” being added to the lexicon of American politics.

It also, according to Google Trends, represented the peak level of interest in Aleppo—worldwide. Nothing that happened in Aleppo, before or since—chemical weapons attacks, aerial bombardments, mass killings—could match the interest generated by Gary Johnson forgetting (or not knowing) what it is.

According to Google Trends, Johnson’s blunder represented the peak level of interest in Aleppo worldwide.

That Aleppo has been largely forsaken, abandoned, or ignored by much of the international community is by now a foregone conclusion. This sentiment has been expressed lately by everyone from newspaper editorialists, to U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, to the desperate pleas of the residents of Aleppo itself for help.

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After five years of brutal fighting in which hundreds of thousands were killed and millions displaced, this also seems to be changing—in America, in Israel, and elsewhere, people are mobilizing.

Vigils and demonstrations against Western inaction are taking place. Regrettably, though, this widespread outpouring of solidarity for Aleppo’s suffering is very, very recent. We now know to place Aleppo in the same league as Darfur, Srebrenica, Rwanda and, well, the Holocaust —genocides that took place while the rest of the world collectively looked away.

But this newfound realization happened only after we, citizens of Western democracies, spent the vast majority of the last five years looking away. And really, most of us only started to really look at horrors that have befallen Aleppo two weeks ago—when it fell.

Consider, for instance, Google Trends searches for the words “Aleppo” and “genocide” in the past year:

Unsurprisingly, searches peaked between December 11-17, after the battle for Aleppo had already effectively ended and the trapped residents of east Aleppo began tweeting their goodbyes.

Searches for 'Aleppo' peaked between December 11-17, 2016, after the battle for Aleppo had already effectively ended.

But the genocide that so many Westerners only now found out about had been already taking place in January, when a Russian airstrike killed eight children, and thousands were suffering from starvation, forced to eat leaves and flower petals.

It was already taking place in February, when the Syrian army cut off the last supply line into rebel-held areas from Turkey, forcing tens of thousands of refugees to flee to the Turkish border.

It was already taking place in March, during that month’s brief sort-of cease-fire, and in April, when said truce crumbled and attacks by rebels, government forces and Russian fighter jets—including an airstrike on a pediatric hospital that killed “the last pediatrician” in the city — left hundreds dead.

The genocide in Aleppo was already happening in May, when an airstrike killed dozens in a refugee camp near the Turkish border. And in June, when dozens of barrel bombs were dropped by government forces on heavily populated areas and ISIS kidnapped hundreds of Kurdish civilians.

It was happening in July, when videos online purported to show the beheading of a child by rebels . And in August, when 2 million people were left without running water and Save the Children reported that 35% of all casualties in the city are kids.

In September, while Gary Johnson was trying to live down his “Aleppo moment,” the Assad regime launched a horrific offensive that claimed hundreds of lives, including more than 100 children. Genocide was still taking place a month later, when more than 400 people were killed within two weeks of Russian and Syrian bombardments.

And it was definitely genocide in November, when the city suffered its heaviest bombings in five years. All of this, of course, was reported in real time in multiple media outlets, but it was largely relegated to the sidelines, and didn’t gain much traction in social media.

The world’s nations refrained from intervening, and the public, in general, remained uninvolved. Many of us, it has to be said, were well aware that Aleppo is hell incarnate, but preferred to focus on other things.
What did we talk about, when we could have talked about Aleppo? All sorts of things.

We talked about Ted Cruz deriding “New York values.” We talked about Donald Trump featuring a group of singing young girls in one of his rallies. We talked about some nut jobs in Oregon seizing a federal building and getting dildos from their many fans online. We talked about Sean Penn getting El Chapo arrested, and Trudeaumania. And the size of Donald Trump’s hands. “Did JayZ cheat on Beyonce?” we asked.

And did Marion Cotillard break up Brangelina? And did Johnny Depp really abuse Amber Heard?! Oh well, at least the Cubs won the World Series. And Cleveland finally won an NBA title.

We talked about creepy clown sightings, and creepy Gary Johnson. We debated endlessly whether Beyonce is inciting against police officers, and whether Colin Kaepernick should kneel or stand, while pretending to be a mannequin on camera for laughs, I think?

Let’s go with laughs. We talked about the exploding Samsung Note 7s exploding-overheating a whole lot more than we did about the incessant bombings that claimed actual lives in Aleppo.

Some of us even pondered: “Gary Johnson Lost at Jeopardy. So What?” We did, of course, talk about important things as well: authoritarianism, Islamophobia, voter suppression, police brutality, sexual assault, and race.

The year 2016 was filled to the brim with stories about money in politics, the rise of populist politics. There was Brexit, and Islamophobic far-right groups, and alt-right, and terrorist attacks in Brussels, Orlando, Ankara, Tel Aviv and Berlin.

And then there’s the kleptocracy currently taking form within the United States, under the new president-elect. These, of course, are all terribly important issues.

However, we did spend an awful lot of time on those creepy clowns. With all this going on, did the genocide in Aleppo receive the level of attention it should have gotten?

No. In a way, that’s understandable: the war in Syria is insanely complicated, and normal people can’t do much of anything to help. This is not a judgement, or a moral rebuke.

However, there are many in the West right now who, shocked at the stream of horrific images and videos out of Syria, feel that they should have done more, or at least been more aware. Did we, citizens and residents of Western countries, fail Aleppo? Are we morally culpable for focusing on other things?

These are not easy questions to answer. Nevertheless, it is up to us, as societies, to determine where preventing genocide fits within our set of priorities.

This was Aleppo’s year. These were the things that concerned us. You decide if this picture is right.

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