Killings in Syria

This is an unusual opening to a posting about Killings in Syria, but bear with me… I promise it all connects.

I just watched Peter Gabriel Fights Injustice With Video, a TED talk from 2006 by the famous musician and activist. It’s a talk worth watching when you have 14 minutes.

At the end of his talk, Gabriel discusses the idea of having people who are facing injustice all around the world make short videos about their situation and upload them. The idea is that people will know that they can be heard. He proposes a huge website, much like Google Earth, where people can fly over and find out the realities of what’s happening to the world’s inhabitants. As he puts it, the technology allows the problems of the world to have “a human face.”

To quote the end of his talk,

We can see who’s dying of AIDS or we can see who’s being beaten up for the first time, and we can hear their stories.

He goes on to say that if we can move the blogger culture to cover these kind of stories, we can transform the world in all sorts of ways.

He ends his talk with this thought:

There can be a new movement growing up, rising from the ground, reaching for the light, and growing strong… just like a tree.

This is a nice image to end with because he begins his talk by saying “I love trees, and I’m very lucky, because we live near a wonderful arboretum, and Sundays, usually, I’d go there with my wife and now, with my four-year-old, and we’d climb in the trees, we’d play hide and seek.”

I love his idea of collecting videos of injustice and making them available via a Google Earth type interface. I also want to learn more about the organization he discussed in his talk, the watchdog group Witness.

On its website, Witness describes itself this way: “See it. Film it. Change it.  Witness uses video to open the eyes of the world to human rights violations.”

And that brings us to the title of this post: there’s a human rights violation going on right now in Syria, where the government has, according to the New York Times, killed 70 protesters in the cities of Hama and Deir al-Zour.

It’s one of the leading stories in today’s New York Times (the lead story is the budget deal that was finally reached on the debt ceiling — I’ll blog about that one, soon. How do you explain that financial mess to a middle school student? Teaching economic literacy is a crucial component of applied math — but, again, that’s another post), and this is a link to an article about Syria, titled Dozens Killed as Syrian Forces Storm Restive Cities.

The article notes that:

The simultaneous raids on several cities came a day before the holy month of Ramadan, a time in which activists have vowed to escalate their uprising with nightly protests. The scale of the assault and the mounting death toll underlined the government’s intention to crush the uprising by force, despite international condemnation and its own tentative and mostly illusory reforms ostensibly aimed at placating protesters’ demands.

Now this is a great paragraph to break down for middle school students. First, it mentions Ramadan, a topic I just blogged about, and if my school were up and running, that would mean that we had just discussed Ramadan yesterday, so we have a nice connection to what we just did in class.

And then there’s the great vocabulary that the Times uses in its stories.  Here’s that paragraph again, with vocab words in red:

The simultaneous raids on several cities came a day before the holy month of Ramadan, a time in which activists have vowed to escalate their uprising with nightly protests. The scale of the assault and the mounting death toll underlined the government’s intention to crush the uprising by force, despite international condemnation and its own tentative and mostly illusory reforms ostensibly aimed at placating protesters’ demands.

Students at the middle school I plan to open will have the mindset that Michelle Pfeiffer has for her students in the movie Dangerous Minds, where she says “That’s right. You have to do your vocabulary. Words are thoughts and we can’t think without ’em.”

In this case, words come from learning about the news from reporters who write well. Students would be expected to look up words they did not know in the stories we read.

We would also discuss vocabulary words as a group — particularly such phrases as “illusory reforms ostensibly aimed at placating protesters’ demands,” which seems hard to relate to, but I think it can actually connect well to a middle school student’s life experience. We could talk about times when they, as middle school students, have perhaps demanded something from their parents (bastions of injustice, no doubt), only to have their parents placate their demands with illusory reforms.

But this is about a bigger injustice than extending a bedtime or going to a concert with a friend and her older sister — this is life and death we’re talking about. And it helps to empathize if we can picture the cities of Hama and Deir al-Zour.

Here’s Hama (spelled with an “h” at the end on Google Earth)

And here’s Deir al-Zour, spelled quite differently here on Google Earth from the NYT article, but still the same city.

In fact, it’s on the site of a city that’s been on the Euphrates River for a long long time. According to Wikipedia, “During Roman times it was an important trading post between the Roman Empire and India.”

Anyway, these are the places in Syria where the government is killing people who are protesting against the regime currently in power.

And, just to make sure we found the right places on Google Earth, it’s always a good idea to check with another source. In this case, the New York Times updated its website and it has a map of Syria, showing that we got the crackdowns on the uprisings in the right places.

There are no videos of the killing yet, but if there is a way to document the killing, it would be good to upload videos, as suggested by Peter Gabriel, to bring to justice the people who committed the injustices.

Whoops — I just checked to see on YouTube (which really should not be blocked at schools — it’s an incredible learning resource — but that’s another post), and there are videos already of the attacks on the protesters. Here’s a screen clipping of a tank from one such video:

The text at the bottom, for those without miraculous vision, says:

Hama City was invaded this morning by the alawite Armies of Syrian military dictator Bashar Assad. This is a video of some of the Dictator’s tanks blasting away at people and buildings from Sabahi Square in the City. 
the dead and wounded are piling up in the streets and hospitals of the City as over 65 known bodies of Hama residents killed by the Army were pulled off of the streets in just the first few hours of the assault. Whole apartment Buildings are being hit with tank and artillery fire and hundreds of people could be dead and buried in their destroyed and collapsed homes. 
The world is doing nothing and is averting its eyes as Hama faces the wrath of a violent bloodthirsty racist and genocidal shiite alawite full scale military attack on an unarmed city, with the help of Hezbollah and Iranian military forces who are assisting Bashar Assad to crush the pro Democracy movement in its stronghold city.

Back in the age of BVC (before video cameras), it would be easier for massacres, such as the one that occurred in Hama back in the early 1980s, to get lost in history. For instance, I’d never heard of this massacre from Hama, which I learned about when I looked up Hama on Wikipedia:

The current crackdown (and the background that explains why the crackdown is happening — in response to huge protests a few weeks ago — and what precedent crackdowns Syria has carried out in the past — such as the 1980s massacre detailed above) is the sort of injustice that’s happening in our world today that students should be learning about in school. It should not be the focus of the curriculum, but it’s worth a few hours to begin to empathize with the plight of the people in Syria.

And it’s worth looking at a video such as the one pictured below, which says that “over 160 people have been killed,” whereas the New York Times is reporting “at least 75 deaths.” Which is the more credible source? Why?

These sorts of conversations — about the reliability and biases of sources — is a conversation worth having with students on a daily basis. Here’s a screen capture of the recently-added video:

And here’s a link to the video itself.

Finally, here’s an interesting search result I just got when I looked on YouTube for more videos — I searched for Hama Syria Killing, and I found some useful context. Apparently, half a million people protested in July against the leader of Syria, Bashar al-Assad (circled in blue). And a week before that, the US Ambassador to Syria visited Hama (circled in red).

If we wanted to get more context, we would look into those stories as well. But this is the basic idea of how to take a headline from the New York Times, such as this one (circled in red below),

and make it accessible to middle school students.

Postscript — I just looked up the attacks in Syria in the Washington Post (it’s always good to consult multiple sources), and I found a powerful slide show, titled Syrians take to the streets.

Here are two photos from the slide show, with the captions:

So this second photo is from the U.S. Ambassador’s visit (the one we learned about from a YouTube search), and it talks about some of the same things that Peter Gabriel talked about back in his TED Talk from 2006, where he mentioned that torture (the subject of the first picture in the slide show) is not something that happens only in other countries…

Now, typical middle school students will not know what Abu Ghraib is (my ninth graders at an exclusive private school had no idea what it was) and probably won’t know much about Guantanamo Bay either. But it’s not hard to give them a thumbnail description of each of those places. We need to do a better job of taking our young people seriously and teaching them about the world in which they live.

Second Postscript:

Taking my own advice about consulting multiple sources, I looked up the Syria story in the Wall Street Journal, and it has an interactive graphic called Middle East Turmoil that gives context for the entire region.

Here’s a quick look at the map — it starts with the most recent events (in this case, in Syria, Libya, and Yemen) and then provides more details about each country when you click on that country.

Also, the main story in the Wall Street Journal shows that Peter Gabriel’s prediction from 2006 came true — cell phone video cameras have become a powerful new technology for capturing injustice.

About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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