Ask yourself a question. How many of ISIS's murder victims can you remember by name? How detailed is your recollection of its atrocities?
Now ask yourself the same of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad's victims. Is your memory suddenly less sharp, less specific, less physically and emotionally upsetting?
If you can recall ISIS's murders more vividly than you can Assad's, if the beheadings of aid workers and the slaughter of Iraqi Yazidis come to mind more easily than does, say, Assad's years-long campaign to systematically torture and murder Syrian children, then that is understandable. It's also exactly what both ISIS and Assad want.
ISIS deliberately designs its killings to attract as much attention as possible. Assad wants his campaign of mass-murder to be swept under the rug. And they're both succeeding. It's a point that Anne Barnard makes well in a grueling New York Times piece showing how the world has forgotten so many of Assad's atrocities as it is transfixed by ISIS's — even though Assad has managed to kill many more people, and has arguably done so more brutally, than even the butchers of ISIS.
Barnard points to a Syrian activist named Baraa Abdulrahman who, outraged at the world's growing lack of interest in Assad's murders, posed the above photo to make his point. Here's another:
Abdulrahman, who lives in the long-punished Damascus suburb of Douma, had a local blacksmith build a large metal cage, like the one that ISIS used to murder Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh. He then asked a group of neighborhood children to dress up in orange jumpsuits - again, in the manner of ISIS captives - and pile into the cage, all alongside rubble from Douma's destruction. Abdulrahman waved a torch in front of the camera as he asked why the world ignored Assad's killing.
His point was to ask us to see Assad's killing as not something that was going on far from view and could be easily ignored, but as akin to ISIS's murders, or indeed perhaps worse. What if, he asked, the video of el-Kasasbeh's murder has instead showed a dozen Syrian children being killed on camera? That would accurately reflect what was happening in Syria, after all. How could the world possibly ignore it?
The question of why ISIS's murders inspire Western and Arab leaders to issue outraged statements and launch military attacks on the group, while Assad's murders hardly seem to register, is of course more complex than a calculation about the moral weight of the victims. ISIS has largely united the world against it, whereas Assad still has powerful supporters — Russia and Iran — and many analysts worry that his absence would create a vacuum just as bad as his presence. And it is also undeniably true that ISIS's campaign to attract attention and outrage has been successful, as has Assad's effort to position himself as the lesser of the two evils.
Still, there is merit to Abdulrahman's implicit criticism, that the world has grown increasing callous to the mass-murder of Syrian civilians, including children, and the ease with which we ignore their suffering is part of why it has continued for so long.