I couldn’t bring myself to watch the recent BBC documentary filmed inside Aleppo. Whether it was moral cowardice or a world-weariness with the whole Syrian situation I couldn’t say.
But to write as if this article was about me than about this encircled city which once boasted a population of over 2 million people would be the height of crassness. This is possibly, to borrow the phrase of a 2015 Guardian article, “the worst place in the world” at the moment. Since 2012 it has become the key battleground in the war between the Assad regime and rebel fighters. This is not a conflict between external IS forces and the West. This is a bitter, internecine civil war, where both sides are unwilling to compromise and the complexities of geopolitics have made the possibility of cease fire and negotiation almost impossible. Slowly, Assad’s forces gain the upper hand. Slowly, the city’s inhabitants are being ground to nothing. It is more medieval than anything we have experienced for a very long time. War crimes abound. There is little we can do. Even prayer seems futile when destruction is everywhere and seems to be the only likely future.
We don’t use the word ‘evil’ very much these days. We find it a hard concept, a word from another age. But perhaps a medieval word is appropriate to a medieval situation. Perhaps the greatest medieval writer on evil, Thomas Aquinas, talked about evil as being the absence of good. Existence, he says, is a good thing, so evil does not exist except as the lack or deprivation of some good. In the context of what we see on our television screens at the moment this concept of evil is entirely understandable. This is what the world would look like in the absence of good, in the absence of God I would say. This, in other words, is a glimpse into hell.
Aquinas’s understanding of evil has been difficult for some modern people to accept, but to me, as I look at Aleppo, it makes complete sense.
When dignity, community, love, trust, law, and life itself are deprived by the wilful actions of human beings, it seems wrong to attribute evil to some external force. We are absolutely responsible as human beings for this atrocity. No evil force has manipulated our will. We have done this ourselves. Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits once posed a famous question about Auschwitz: not where was God in Auschwitz, but where was man?
Let us hope and, in the face of its apparent futility, let us continue to pray that this tragedy will end. But let us also take full responsibility as human beings for this hell on earth. This is not God’s doing, nor the Devil’s. We have done and we are doing this all ourselves. May God have mercy on us.