In Syria, over the past nine months, agents of President Bashar al-Assad’s security apparatus have killed more than five thousand citizens, according to the United Nations. That’s an average of about twenty citizens a day since March, when peaceful demonstrators took to the streets to protest the Assad family’s forty-year dictatorship and the slaughter began. Videos uploaded to the Internet at the time showed throngs of defenseless men, women, and children, many of them waving olive branches, scattered by gunfire. Some videos showed Assad’s men (there are seventeen distinct security forces at his service) hunting down stragglers; other videos showed fallen bodies, bleeding and dead; and later, when people gathered to bury those bodies, there were more videos, of Assad’s forces opening fire on the funerals. There is no independent press in Syria, and foreign reporters are rarely allowed in, but as the protests and the crackdown continued through the summer and fall, the videos kept coming, denying the state the power it gets from invisibility. Shot on cell phones, the clips convey the terrifying pandemonium in the streets and linger insistently on its aftermath: a relentless array of cadavers—heads and torsos punctured, ripped, smashed, and spilling—memorialized in forensic close-up.
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Philip Gourevitch has been a regular contributor to The New Yorker since 1995 and a staff writer since 1997.