The Syrian ‘Massacre of the Innocents’

Regardless of blame, humanity must not be distracted from the tragic reality of those who lost their lives.

At least 108 people were killed in Houla, but the Syrian government denied responsibility [REUTERS]

Ashville, NC – In the early history of Christianity, “the Massacre of the Innocents” refers to an episode of infanticide by Herod the Great, the Roman client king of Judea. According to the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 2:13-23), Herod ordered the execution of all young male children in the village of Bethlehem, so as to avoid the loss of his throne to a newborn King.

That child was born and with it Christianity, a world religion. 

The murdered infants, known as the Holy Innocents, are considered by later Christians to be the first “Christian martyrs”. Though some Biblical scholars question the actual historicity of the event, the matter has assumed iconic significance in early and subsequent Christian history. It has now become something of an allegory, a parable of murderous instincts, the infanticidal fear of the power and potency of the next generation – the birth of a truth: a future that might be already liberated from our inherited fears.   

In works of art depicting the “Massacre of the Innocents”, many European artists – ranging from Giotto di Bondone to Matteo di Giovanni to Cornelis van Haarlem to Peter Paul Rubens and many others – have painted this episode both for the formal and compositional challenge that it poses and also iconically to connect it to the political events of their own contemporary time. Through these paintings, the parable has become a potent visual register of the artists’ contemporary politics, and thus assumed even more proverbial potency.

 Massacre sparks diplomatic action against Syria

As an allegorical instance of infanticide, “the Massacre of the Innocents” is thus iconic as much to Christianity as to any other context in which innocent children are murdered for political expediency. The infamous case of the Children’s Crusade (1212), dispatched to expel Muslims from the Holy Land or else to convert them to Christianity, though ended up with most of them being sold into slavery, is yet another such example. The example of child-soldiers in the course of Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), or the NATO bombing of Afghan school children, or the Israeli targeting of Palestinian children, or even the more bizarre case of the US intelligence services torturing detainees at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib with music from Sesame Street. Examples can be multiplied across cultures and histories – in varied, though equally horrific, contexts.  Joseph Massad has aptly diagnosed President Obama’s categorical disregard for the plight of Palestinian children as a case of “Arabopaedophobia”.  

The Houla massacre

It is quite possible that the massacre in the Houla region of Syria on May 25, 2012 will go down in history, in the judicious words of the UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, as “the tipping point” in the Syrian people’s sustained struggle against the vicious tyranny that rules them. Richard Falk is right that this phrase may raise false hope for any imminent (but yet non-existent) solution. But that is only if we keep the politics of the matter paramount in mind, not the depth of moral depravity to which even Assad’s regime can sink. 

Those who have managed to survive the carnage by hiding or playing dead have now come out and given grisly accounts of the horror that descended upon the defenseless children and their parents. They report that the massacre was perpetrated by the Syrian army and the notorious shabiha militia at the service of the ruling regime. 

“Survivors who spoke to the BBC, and the local commander of the Free Syrian Army, said the people who carried out the killings were militiamen – shabbiha  from nearby Alawite villages.” BBC adds: “We can’t confirm their accounts, but they are consistent with one another, and also with the reports given by activist groups on the ground in the immediate aftermath of the massacres.” 

They also confirmed that some of the 108 victims – many of whom were children – had been killed by close-range gunfire or knife attacks. Most witnesses who spoke to the BBC said they believed that the army and shabiha militiamen were responsible. “We were in the house, they went in, the shabiha and security, they went in with Kalashnikovs and automatic rifles,” said survivor Rasha Abdul Razaq. “They took us to a room and hit my father on the head with the back of a rifle and shot him straight in the chin.”

 Blame traded over massacre in Syria’s Houla

The Syrian authorities, meanwhile, “insist that what they admit was a massacre was the work of hundreds of armed rebels who massed in the area, and carried out the killings in order to derail the peace process and provoke intervention by Nato.” The Syrian UN Ambassador Bashar Ja’fari also claimed that his government is the target of a “tsunami of lies” regarding this massacre. 

President Bashar al-Assad himself also has denied his forces had any role in the Houla massacre: “And he again blamed ‘terrorists’, supported by foreign powers, for fomenting discord and creating ‘a project of… dissent.” 

The blaming game is thus set to go apace for a while – the Syrian opposition blaming the regime and the regime blaming the opposition, while the Russian allies of the ruling regime in Syria divide the blame equally: According to the Guardian: “Sergei Lavrov says both Bashar al-Assad’s regime and armed opposition were responsible for over 100 deaths in Houla.” 

So who killed these innocent children and their parents: the ruling regime in order to instill fear and end the revolutionary uprising, or the “opposition” in order to instigate a NATO military intervention on their behalf, or perhaps a combination of both. In the case of the children of Bethlehem at least there is no historical record of Herod denying responsibility for the massacre. But not here.


In one of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpieces, Rashomon (1950), we are witness to a murder and rape from multiple perspectives. A young samurai and his bride are passing through the woods when they are attacked by a bandit who kills the samurai, rapes his bride, and runs away. 

We get to know what actually happened through multiple narratives: the bandit’s story, the young wife’s account, the murdered samurai’s version (summoned by a “medium”), and also via the account given by a woodcutter’s who chances upon the scene of the incident.

 Survivor describes Syria’s Houla massacre

Many film critics and scholars have been tempted to read Rashomon as an indication of the relativism of truth, depending on the person’s perspective and perhaps even interests. But evident in Rashomon is also the fact that which ever way we look at it, and who ever narrates the story, and no matter how responsibility for the murder and the rape keeps shifting, we end up with a man murdered and his bride raped. That singular fact stares us repeatedly in the eye no matter who tells the story. The power of the film is in fact precisely in revealing the overwhelming power of narratives, glossing over a fact that keeps showing itself through these narratives. 

In other words, accounts, stories, renditions, successive shifting of blame, and narratives that are supposed to tell us what actually happened, based on the factual evidence we keep watching, do in fact paradoxically cover up precisely what we keep watching. The visual evidence keeps staring us in the eye, while the multiple and conflicting narratives keep concealing them by distracting us – so much so that if instead of listening to these stories we were to cover our ears and just look at what Kurosawa’s camera keeps showing us we will have no problem seeing what has happened: a man has been murdered and a women violated. 

Our desire for truth, justice, and revenge constantly keeps us focused on multiple and varied narratives, while the tragedy itself – the supreme truth and the irreconcilable injustice – keeps staring us in the eye. The desire for truth and the will to seek justice keeps blinding us of the event itself, the daunting, frightful tragedy, the unalterable truth and the irredeemable injustice. 

But even that paradox is not the supreme twist of this cinematic masterpiece: before we know it, we the audience become narratively implicated in the desire for self-deception, for blindness, for not seeing what Kurosawa keeps showing us.    

The holy innocents 

The same is with the Houla massacre: Every party to this crime has a reason to put a different spin on the horror. But whichever way they spin it the fact of those perished young lives keeps staring us in the eye and demanding our undivided attention. Bearing witness, we must not be duped into buying any one of those narratives, by the regime or by its opposition, by the now holier-than-thou European and American officials or by the barefaced banality that rules and (does not) represent Syria – lest we too become distracted by these self-serving narratives and thereby implicated in our blindness of the massacre. 

The resolution at the end of Rashomoncomes when the woodcutter adopts an abandoned child. But the resolution of the Houla Massacre has a far more historic proportion.

Herod is reported to have killed all those children for the fear that one of them would be his ending.The ending of Assad’s regime and the tyranny it has sustained for a very long time is contingent on no one child. The ending of Assad’s regime is the future of all Syrians. All those murdered children were, and are, and will forever remain the ending of that ghastly tyranny.

Any government, first and foremost, must both represent and protect its citizens. That is the very raison d’être of any government. The ruling regime in Syria does neither. The Assad regime was buried along with those holy innocents. 

Yes there are many foreign elements who are abusing the Syrian uprising to their advantage: The Americans, the NATO countries, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran, even the morally and politically bankrupt al-Qaeda they say. But the final triumph of Syrian people is the defeat of all these treacheries.

The terms of engagement with the future of democracy in our world are not any longer merely politcial but in fact entirely ethical. The discourse must and is radically shifting from the politics of power to an ethics of defiance. This defiance is identical in its opposition to NATO military intervention anywhere from Afghanistan to Libya, with its own civilian (including children) casualties, as it is to the corrupt and degenerate regimes that rule over our people’s life, liberty, and destiny. 

We are given a false choice to make between a bloody ruling regime in Syria or the horrid Taliban in Afghanistan, and the even bloodier NATO intervention in one or the other. The choice must begin with the facts on the ground, and now buried in graves, facts staring humanity in the eye, and we must never allow any story, any narrative, any spin, any version, whether by the murderous ruling regime in Syria, or by the even more treacherous militarism of NATO, or by the ghastly opportunism of Russia or the Islamic Republic of Iran to gloss over those innocent bodies. Not just the Syrian regime, its “opposition”, NATO, ad nauseam – but the entirety of humanity is accountable to that murderous scene. 

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. His Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism was just released by Zed.