“The pyramid of martyrs haunts the earth.” Remembering Aleppo, this line from René Char’s wartime poem comes back to me like a slap in the face. And I feel shame.
Not for Vladimir Putin, that vulgar little czar, that kapo of a gangster state who, between photo shoots and displays of testosterone, sent his planes to bomb the ruins of a city: To him, Aleppo was nothing more than another theater for his furious narcissism, and he was just playing his role.
Nor for Bashar al-Assad, behind whose leaden silhouette lies the vilest, darkest, most craven soul of our time: Men of his sort long ago resigned from the human race; eventually he will have to answer to humanity for his crimes.
No, I am ashamed of myself because I pleaded, cried in the wilderness, wrote countless columns and screeds — only to find myself face to face with my impotence, choking on my anger.
But I am also ashamed of you — of all of us — because today, at the close of 2016, there are still people who are treated as game, chased because they still have two arms, two legs, a head and have not yet been converted into the heaps of bone, gut and muscle that the Syrian government and its allies seek to reduce them to; shame because, in the face of this cruel game, we have done next to nothing and had precious little to say.
I am ashamed because, on this earth, there are people who can no longer think or hope or love, people to whom all that is left is to tremble and run and then, the next day, to tremble and run again, people who have nothing but their own bodies with which to shield their children from the fire and gas that will soon consume them all. And, in the face of this spectacle, we are witnesses who will not even acknowledge that we are playing the game of “see no evil, hear no evil.” Are we no longer moored to reality? Have we become habituated to the forced suffering of others? Do we see it as a circus in which, from the stands, we allow ourselves the guilty pleasure of watching the struggle of ordinary people, not gladiators, and forget to offer a thumbs up? Or is it just the relief one feels at being safe and warm at home, as the rain pelts down outside? Except, in this case, what is pelting down are bombs.
I am ashamed of the rote reports on the radio during the days of Aleppo’s agony: the anesthetized commentary, the unvarying “analysis.” I am ashamed of the apathetic experts, the pseudo-scholars ever careful not to betray a hint of anger or urgency. I am ashamed because there comes a moment when the redundant platitudes (death, death and more death) convert the speakers — and the listeners — into accomplices.
I am ashamed of the United Nations, whose resolution was introduced just as the curtain was falling, when little remained to be done but to count the dead and, soon enough, to sort the “refugees.”
I am ashamed of this new League of Nations and its Chamberlains who chatter while, in Aleppo yesterday and in Idlib tomorrow, our brothers and sisters in humanity are blasted with bombs, riddled with bullets and drained of their blood.
I am ashamed of the cold Chinese and Russian monsters of the so-called Security Council who, as the planes leveled one neighborhood after another, block by block; as each target exploded and collapsed; as men, women and children clung together in a terrifying communion; and as the few who survived these oceans of blood were executed or sent off to torture chambers, had the audacity to veto the ceasefire resolution.
I feel shame and sadness for the others, those who tried to salvage some honor by delivering yet another speech of condemnation and indignation; I feel shame for the honorable ambassadors who tried, within the vile bunker that the UN’s New York headquarters has become, to reach the icy men and prevent them, this time, from raising their plump little hands to say no, there’s nothing wrong, really, with skewering or shredding tens of thousands of bodies.
What goes through the mind of a participant in such a process? Who feels the queasiest, the functionary of death who votes without qualm to continue the killing, or the man of good will who stands against it but must come to terms with failure? How does one live when, after a night spent watching the vetoers (that is, the bombers) block once again, in a ritual as rigid as a session of torture, your last appeal, you discover, as you make your way home in the early hours of the morning, that your step is heavy not from ordinary fatigue, but from the human pulp clinging to your sole or hem?
I feel the shame of Barack Obama and the “red line” policy that he abandoned on August 30, 2013, in a palinode that shocked his allies. Little did he realize how truly he had spoken: His line was indeed red — the red of a trail of blood.
I am ashamed of Donald Trump, who showed his colors even more clearly in declaring that those young people destined to die, those who, up to the last minute of the fall of the city, posted their reports on YouTube and somehow found the strength to send us their humble “thanks,” will be objects of a deal — that was the word he used, a deal — with his buddy, Putin.
I am ashamed that a narrow majority of those whom I must continue to call my fellow citizens appear to deem Assad — this killer with the face of your son-in-law, this assassin at first considered to be meek and mild, this man who, many thought, would not be king (let alone a tyrant), this modern version of Edward VIII, one who does not abdicate but stays on the throne and delivers his country to Hitler, this monstrous yuppie, this jet-setting Pol Pot — as the lesser of two evils when juxtaposed with ISIS.
I am ashamed of French presidential candidate François Fillon and those members of the Chamber of Deputies who insist on explaining to us, based on their sordid calculations of the value of lives, that the slaughter in Aleppo is part of the price we must pay to vanquish terrorism.
I am ashamed of all that because we no doubt have the television coverage, the public discourse, the representatives and the candidates that we deserve.
We are defeatists mistaking ourselves for people of peace.
We are sated Europeans too ready to disavow our own values as the first great crime against humanity of the 21st century, which is to say the first great crime against each and every one of us, rushes to its climax.
We are participants in a contemporary hecatomb, and, as was the case with the cries from the death camps a lifetime ago, few, so few, have found the courage to insist that we must make war against war and bomb the bombers.
The pyramid of martyrs indeed haunts the earth. And the earth groans under its weight. That is where we stand.
Bernard-Henri Lévy — French philosopher, filmmaker, and activist; defender of Israel and of Jewish values — returns to New York on January 11 for a conversation with Charlie Rose at the 92nd Street Y. On the previous day, Random House will publish The Genius of Judaism, an English translation of Lévy’s best-seller, L’Esprit du judaïsme.