Here are two weary words that we ought to retire: never again. Let's agree not to use them next month, when we gather for the annual Holocaust Memorial Day ceremonies. Let's agree that they have lost all meaning.
Of course the sentiment behind them is noble. After the Holocaust, we vowed that never again would the world allow such horror. The Shoah would stand as a kind of terrible terminus of history — an end- point that showed how low humanity could sink and to which we would never return.
But look at what’s happened since. The roll-call is familiar (and, despite what some say, it is recalled every Holocaust Memorial Day): Cambodia, Rwanda, Srebrenica, with perhaps the chemical slaughter at Hama and Halabja added for good measure. And now we must induct another name into that hall of infamy: Aleppo.
There, civilians who had spent many months hiding in basements, shielding themselves from an unending rainstorm of bombs or shells, who had seen every last hospital deliberately targeted for destruction, who had seen even their makeshift underground clinics destroyed from the air, signalled to the world that they were preparing for death. Their tormentors — the Assad government, with the Russian and Iranian militaries at their side — were about to recapture the last rebel-held corner of Aleppo and they knew they would not survive. They used social media to record farewell messages. Even the children said goodbye.
On Tuesday, the UN said that pro-Assad forces were entering people’s homes and killing civilians on the spot. Up to 100,000 people were said to be crammed into a tiny patch of the city, just a few blocks, that had become, according to America’s National Public Radio a scene of “unimaginable” destruction and “carnage”. Unicef said it had received word of children — on their own, with no adults — trapped in a building under fire. One UN official described “a complete meltdown of humanity.” The BBC reported that the few rescuers on hand were having to wear rubber boots: the ground was so drenched in blood.
So what meaning does it have to say “never again”? Of course, what we have witnessed in Syria is not a direct re-run of the Holocaust. No one is saying that. It’s not the same. But when the world first made that vow, it did not merely mean, “Never again shall a man called Adolf Hitler murder six million Jews.” It meant never again would the world tolerate the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of civilians who had harmed nobody. It meant no more global indifference in the face of such evil. It meant that the world would not stand by — passively, idly, mutely — and let it happen.
But we do let it happen. On Tuesday, I had a glimpse, only a glimpse I know, into a question that had always preoccupied me about the Holocaust. How could people far away — in Hamburg, say, or Hampshire — have carried on, knowing what was happening at that very moment in the killing fields of eastern Europe? How was such a thing possible?
And yet there I was, checking Twitter to see a UN report of 82 civilians shot dead, clicking on the farewell tweet of a seven-year-old girl — “This is my last moment to either live or die” — but also getting on with my work and, in the evening, putting away the shopping and following the Arsenal game. Life carried on.
There will be lots of talk now about who is to blame, besides of course the murderous culprits themselves: the regimes of Damascus, Moscow and Tehran. Some will point the finger at Barack Obama, who drew a red line on the use of chemical weapons but who, when that line was crossed, baulked at military action. Knowing that the US cavalry was never coming, Vladimir Putin was emboldened. He saw a vacuum and realised he could step into it — and so he did.
Others will say that Obama did not act because there was no public pressure on him to do so. Had the streets of US cities and European capitals been filled since 2011 with citizens outraged at Assad’s slaughter, then Obama and other western leaders would have felt compelled to stop it.
And why were the public not outraged? Because the media and the so-called anti-war movements did not bang the drum of collective anger as they could have. (It’s hard to disagree with the SOAS student who tweeted that, “If Israel was doing to Aleppo what Russia/Iran/Assad are doing, there’d be 200,000 people on the streets of London.”)
There will be time aplenty to apportion blame and to talk of lessons learned. But let’s decide one thing right now. Let’s never again say “never again.” It means nothing.
Jonathan Freedland is a columnist for the ‘Guardian’