One of the most significant movies that shaped public opinion in regards to the consequences of a nuclear war between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. during the Cold War was probably “The Day After” (1983). Directed by Nicholas Meyer and seen by more than 100 million people, the movie depicts the story of the residents of two towns, Lawrence and Kansas City, during a standoff between the two superpowers of the Cold War and in the immediate aftermath of nuclear escalation that kills millions of people. Contrary to some other movies in regards to a nuclear standoff, such as “Thirteen Days,” the movie does not provide the details of the decision-making process in Washington, D.C. but spends most of the time in telling how the lives of the people change after a nuclear war. The movie played an important role in changing public perception about a nuclear arms race and nuclear warfare.
After the movie, there were vigils for peace in different parts of the country, including Lawrence, where the film was made; ABC prepared counseling hotlines for viewers who might have developed some type of trauma, and there were even some writers who wrote books about how the movie changed their ideas about nuclear weapons.
The movie also impacted policymakers. It was reported that President Reagan watched the movie several days before it was shown on TVs and was affected by the plot and wrote how he was depressed in his diary. President Reagan continued his nuclear deterrence policy; however, there were several different stories explaining how the movie impacted his ideas and policies. Later when it was shown in the Soviet Union, the movie probably had similar effects on that part of the world.
Of course, it was just a movie, and it was fiction, but its impact on society and public perception of nuclear weapons was particularly important to people. It played an important role in awakening American public opinion. Since 1983, in several instances we have seen how visual materials have changed public opinion and made governments more responsive to crises in different parts of the world.
However, since 2011 the massacres that have been taking place in Syria, the barrel bombings of towns and the shelling of major cities by the regime’s forces have not moved international public opinion to intervene in the conflicts. Even the chemical weapons attack in Ghouta did not mobilize sufficient public opinion. YouTube videos taken after the attack demonstrated kids trying to breathe, adults twitching and jerking and women drooling on the floor beside the bodies of their loved ones. Other than some security analysts, many were not influenced by the potential consequences of chemical warfare and the attacks. The threat seemed so distant, and people became less sensitive to conflicts in the Middle East that they did not pay much attention to civilians being killed by an oppressive regime.
The lack of sensitivity to the tragedy in Syria in part started to dissipate with the rise of ISIS in Iraq and its execution videos, and its attacks on minorities in Iraq. The tragedy that ISIS created in Iraq has been in the headlines of newspapers and on TVs with vivid images of the men and women suffering in the Sinjar Mountain and other parts of Iraq. The rapid reaction of the international community in forming an international coalition was instrumental for the slowdown of ISIS forces in some parts of Iraq, but everybody by now agrees that a more comprehensive strategy is needed in order to “degrade” and “destroy” ISIS. In the meantime, while the international community focused on the ISIS, the Assad regime has been using the shadow provided by ISIS to continue killing civilians in different parts of Syria.
The day before yesterday, YouTube footage of the aftermath of a barrel bomb attack by the Syrian regime on a camp housing people who had escaped from the fighting near Idlib, once more demonstrated the extent of the ongoing destruction and massacre in Syria. The video – if it is watched by the international community while their attention is focused on this region – should mobilize public opinion and persuade governments of Western countries that one of the roots of the problem is the Assad regime itself. The video is almost a trailer of the massacres that has been going on in the region. There are tents erected by the families that escaped from the fighting, which have been destroyed or burned down. There are dismembered body parts, wounded people being carried on blankets and burned bodies. There is also a scene in the video that is worth more than a million words: a man carrying a child’s body torn into two pieces – the lower part of the child’s body is in his right hand and the upper part is in his left hand. For people who have been following the conflict in Syria, this is just one of thousands of videos. However, for those who want to understand the conflict in Syria in three short minutes, it is more than enough.
It is a video of not “the day after” nuclear war, but a video about “the day” of the killings of civilians, who are increasingly being squeezed between ISIS and the Syrian regime. It is a video that explains in a few minutes why the international community needs to do something about the Assad regime, other than merely condemning the regime.
Yes it is a horrible video, yes it is not fiction but real, and yes viewer discretion is advised, but this discretion should not provide the international community an excuse to ignore or turn a blind eye to the massacre in Syria. And yes it is “the day.”
This article was originally published in Daily Sabah on November 1, 2014.