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Syrians Are Dying in High Definition: What Are We Going to Do About It?

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This morning - like so many other Western, privileged souls - I awoke, and immediately rolled over to check my iPhone for emails, Facebook updates, and whatever Twitter trend I had missed during the seven crucial hours where I had decided to sleep instead of engaging with the electronic world. In August, that slowest of news months, the answer is usually "nothing much." (It must be noted, of course, that events in Egypt have made a heroic effort to interrupt President Obama's vacation and ensure that none of us head off to Cabo with a clear conscience.)

Today, however, amidst the urgent news bulletins about what Kim Kardashian wore , the oh-so-ironic "birther" controversy surrounding Tea Party darling Senator Ted Cruz, and the never-ending saga of the Greek economic bailout, there was a new hashtag filling up my newsfeed: #CWMassacre. It is horrifying.

As I scrolled through the tweets, and clicked on the links for videos and pictures, I was filled with an overpowering sense of helpless outrage as to the mindless, senseless, overwhelming atrocity that was carried out overnight in the suburbs of Damascus. People - human beings - are dying on the floors of filthy, make-shift hospitals, in pools of vomit, convulsing and gasping for air the way asphyxiating goldfish do when they have accidentally flopped out of their fishbowls. I know - I know - how utterly inadequate and even offensive that analogy is, and yet I don't have another way to describe it. Nothing in my life to date has prepared me with a sufficient vocabulary to communicate the horrors of these photographs. There are piles and piles and piles of corpses; children, babies, and toddlers lined up in a macabre tableau of sprawled limbs and greenish-gray skin.

The mainstream media - a phrase I do not normally employ with derision - is being extremely careful to make liberal use of air quotes ("inverted commas," for the Anglo readers) and the word "alleged." It is noted that the Syrian rebels/activists/etc (insert your preferred epithet here) "accuse" the Syrian government of a deadly chemical weapon attack or that the opposition "claims" that up to 1,300 people were killed in the attack. Photos and videos, when featured on a mainstream media website, are judiciously attributed to "Syrian opposition sources."

Their reasons for being so circumspect do have some basis in legitimacy: the fog of war (no pun intended) is a huge destabilizing factor. We - the journalists, editors, publishers, producers and consumers of news - are by and large not there, on the ground, in Damascus (or anywhere else in Syria). Because of the severe restrictions on independent foreign media operating in Syria, many of these news stories are being filed out of Beirut, or Dubai, and cannot be verified firsthand. Responsible reporters are being rightly cautious, trying to write balanced stories, getting the Syrian government's take on the matter ("there is absolutely no truth to the reports about the use of chemical weapons," we are assured), and making an effort not to let emotion interfere with accuracy. No one can state conclusively what kind of "chemical agent" was used, and a few contrarian outliers have not discounted the possibility that the Free Syrian Army did it to themselves.

In addition to all of these factors, there is the very curious timing of the attack: inspectors from the United Nations are in Syria at this very moment, inspecting allegations about the use of chemical weapons from an earlier incident in March 2013. It is likely that anyone--even a defiant, out-of-touch dictator--would be brazen enough to launch a massive attack of this kind with the international community's envoys on the ground? At least one prominent observer thinks so, and the West's recent impotence and dithering in the face of the Egyptian military's violent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood last week may have convinced him he has nothing to lose.

However, in real life, none of this matters: not Assad's (or the opposition's) motives, not journalistic integrity, not UN presence (or lack thereof). None of it. Because dozens, probably hundreds, of women and children--the textbook example of an innocent non-combatant--have died an agonizing and terrifying death, and the traumatizing proof is available to anyone with an internet connection. Their deaths add to a casualty list which recently exceeded 100,000 killed over the course of this 2.5 year conflict. It is no longer an academic question of "if" the international community has a responsibility to intervene in Syria, but rather "how soon" they must do so.

The Obama Administration tied itself into semantic knots recently trying to avoid characterizing the overthrow of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt as a "coup." This had echoes of the Clinton Administration's acrobatic linguistics during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Taking a page from these predictable books, isolationists will note that there is no definitive clause under international law which requires the world to stop sitting on its hands and looking in the other direction while Syria burns. Others will throw up banal arguments about the lack of oil as an impediment to taking action. These should be disregarded as self-interested smokescreens from those who benefit from the status quo.

As the gears of diplomacy creak slowly into action, (an emergency session was called at the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday afternoon), stakeholders in Western governments, the Arab League, and NATO need to hunker down and start having frank discussions about next steps. If ever there were a time to put the United Nations' fledgling Responsibility to Protect doctrine into practice, this is it. We no longer have a choice in the matter: thanks to the wonders of technology, Syrians are dying in high-definition. Blissful ignorance is not an option.