Back in London, I kept abreast of current events, much more abreast than was good for me or sensible in any way. It should be evident that checking the news more than once a day is a waste a time. Such immediacy comes with no benefits. Back in my previous job, I used to have a browser window open with a news site at all times. Whenever thinking got too hard or I had to wait for experiments to finish, I would read little stories that would become irrelevant shortly thereafter. I told myself I was relaxing, meditating on the world, maybe even learning something without trying, but in the end I was just stuffing useless crap in my head.
At my new job, the thinking is still hard, but there aren't experiments to wait for anymore. Quite to the contrary, I'm usually working on at least five different tasks, most of which are crucial and need to be finished right a way – or so they tell me – keeping me busy from early to late. I'm not complaining; the work is interesting and satisfying, and I've been weaned off news without really noticing. When the weather is bad I get pointless snippets cut from the regional newspaper projected on the screens of the bus that takes me to and from work, and sometimes I get the (pathetic) free paper to read on the train, but that's about it. No more time wasting.
News should be consumed in weekly intervals at most, sufficiently matured for relevance and impact. Unless you're a journalists or the leader of an army at war, you're deluding yourself if you think more frequent updates are needed. Consistent with this philosophy, I buy an Economist to read on the train every few weeks. The magazine's coverage is not sufficiently deep and universal for a well-rounded picture, but it's good enough for a vague idea, and that's all I or almost anyone else needs. I might miss the terror attacks in Paris (as indeed I did until my boss emailed me the next day to ask if I, having been in Paris the night before, was all right) or bad hair guy's latest antics in the US or some earthquake somewhere, but if it's important, it will eventually percolate through. If it's not, it won't, and so much for the better.
I could leave it at that, and it would be a fine post for the category of "pointless musings", but what has been percolating through from Syria is so horrifying and barbaric that I can't remain silent – though I don't have anything to contribute as much as questions of angry incomprehension.
Syria is dear to me. I visited it twice before the current hell broke loose, and spent wonderful vacations. The picture on the right was taken at five in the morning six-and-a-half years ago in the middle of two thousand years of history, beauty and magic. The rest of the country, with its welcoming people and unspoiled charms, was different in an infinity of variations and absolutely spectacular.
No one would make any kind of positive associations with Syria these days. War – not between opposing forces but among them – has shredded the country to pieces. I would be surprised if the columns in the photograph were still standing. Jihadis of depravity have pillaged and killed there. The petrified peacefulness imposed by a benighted dictator has imploded, with violence and devastation filling all space.
Every bit of news out of Syria seems to be more desperate than the last. Half the country displaced, millions on the run from savagery, with no place to go other than camps of frigid tents in neighboring countries and very little hope. Tens of thousands made it through Turkey last year and over to Greece and then up the Balkan route to central Europe, a migration of the dispossessed, tired masses self-organizing along shape-shifting tracks with nothing but a cell phone to guide them and a small pack on their backs.
From my comfortable flat in tranquil Switzerland, it seems impossible, unreal, that this could happen in Europe in the 21st century. And yet it's true – a region I considered for holidays last summer has now turned medieval. Ryanair has strung a dense net of flights across the entire continent, but here we have tattered multitudes staggering north, on foot, with no technology besides their telephones, walking as far as their feet will carry them, tired, miserable, cold. The days repeat endlessly, the scrounging for food, the searching for shelter, the will to survive. They keep moving and finding ways to proceed, but it's almost impossible now. One by one, borders were fortified, fences were drawn, people were held back, vilified, sent back with nowhere to go.
Two weeks ago, when it seemed that every plague in the book had ravaged Syria and it couldn't get any worse, Putin started bombing Aleppo, a city of two million, and the world looks on. Why is he wrecking Syria? If he's done with Ukraine, shouldn't he take advantage of the lull and try to get the Russian economy out of the shit? Is he trying to do just that by pimping domestic arms production? Is he trying to swell the refugee stream in the hope of overwhelming Europe, hateful callousness that wouldn't be out of character? How come he can commit atrocities in utter impunity?
There is no end to my questions and little understanding. The situation is intolerable. Fifty thousand of those who escaped Putin's bombs are now squashed against the Turkish border in unmitigated wretchedness, held inside a country that is disintegrating, a country that keeps being violated by old forces and new, by devil worshipers and by the ignorance of public opinion. The amount of suffering is dreadful. The inaction by those who should know better is worse.