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Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Ghouta Gas Attacks of Syria: Visuals that Drive Impulsive Narrative

Although this may be frustrating to many, this blog entry is not to push a case for action or inaction. Nor it is meant to develop intrigue or to provide an opinion leading to a conclusion.  It's meant to explain how we react, how we might react, and what we need to consider.  

Immediately after this terrible event, we were exposed to images and stories that were raw, and that touched at the core of what makes us human.

These victims were civilians, people like you and me. Worst of all, there were children, innocents. Children, the same as our own children safely sleeping in our homes at dawn - the same hour that these children were asleep in their own beds. 

We want to protect the world, protect ourselves, and protect our children. 

In our search for a linear story that has the traditional arc:


we are groping in horror toward the familiar, comfortable narrative. We want this solved, and we want it solved before it’s too late. 

As we turn to make decisions, and to take action, we inevitably become more analytical.  
In the United States, we often turn to the media for the story.  The U.S. media in turn calls upon the White House.  Here, the White House issued commentary and a very compelling diagram that rapidly developed the storyline, the characters, the plot, and the narrative arc. 

The Washington Post worked with graphic designers and seized the opportunity to simplify and clarify the image

The more effective presentation of information continued to develop the character of the attacker and victims. In the process, both the implied perpetrators and the victims evolved in geospatial and statistical terms.  

As a tradeoff, we were pleased with our perspective, and felt more confident. The truth seemed readily at hand. 

But others entered the narrative, and posed questions. For example, the timing, the location, especially in the presence of UN observers. Why would the Syrian government do this in the presence of scrutiny?  And why in such a visible location?  

Some rebutted that the Syrian government had grown desperate in the face of encroachment in such a visible, clearly strategic battleground, and that they were indifferent to world opinion.

And on it went. Meanwhile, we felt the impelling responsibility to act – to do something. Through the use of news and media infographics, we were able to distill complex military and logistical operations into singular images, under the headliner TECHNOLOGY. 


But acting, especially with force, has consequences.  In many cases, acting with force, no matter how technologically advanced and accurate, inevitably results in replication of human casualty.  We are urged to think carefully, to think of the consequences. The below example comes from Max Fisher in his Washington Post piece 9 questions about Syria you were embarrassed to ask; the map was originally generated by Columbia University’s Gulf/2000 project. It asks us to pull back even further, and to look at the bigger picture – that of Syria as a nation, rather than Damascus as a battlefield. With whom are we engaging? With whom are we siding? And what about the entire region?  Who matters?  What is at stake? 

Unfortunately, these complexities, nuances, and challenges are increasingly lost in our sense of urgency – certainly understandable when we are faced with such terrible images that remind us of our own fragile humanity. 

That urgency drives us to turn to authorities who might provide us with some moral direction. For example, Southern California Public Radio offers this helpful interactive for their listener base.  It aggregates the positions of California's elected legislators.  It's especially timely, since the U.S. president has now agreed to defer a decision to the judgment of the nation's legislators.  

We must remind ourselves of our tendency to grope for the narrative, and the dangers it brings. In this haunting recollection from the presidential debates, we had a good example of how cannot expect to ask our leaders to provide us with a simple reduction of an entire populace down to an international, geopolitical story of good versus evil.  

Hopefully it's enough to encourage us to seek more answers, to seek a human identity for both the victims and the perpetrators, and to not default to the simple, Western narrative arc.  

1 comment:

  1. Did you see this analysis of Hersh's article Ghouta gas attack?