We know them not by their names, but by their tragic, iconic images. They remain seared in our memories even as the wars and eras they came to symbolize fade slowly to gray.
There is the little South Vietnamese girl, crying in terror and running naked toward us down the road after warplanes bombed her village. And also the South Vietnamese general executing a Viet Cong rebel by firing a bullet into his head.
Phan Thi Kim Phuc, forever 9 years old in our mind's eye, and Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, forever holding the smoking gun, came to embody all we saw was wrong with that war.
Fast forward to 2009. There is the beautiful, dark-haired young Iranian woman, on the ground, her unseeing eyes staring skyward. Caught up in a postelection protest in Tehran, she was shot by a government militiaman. Bystanders with cell phone cameras sent her image over the Internet and the whole world watched her die.
This week, a normally pleasant, round-faced 13-year-old boy from the Syrian village of Jiza has joined their iconic ranks — in a horrific way. It would be good if we could only remember Hamza Ali al-Khateeb by the last image on the YouTube videos the world saw this weekend, the smiling photo his family provided, which aired at the end of the piece first broadcast on the Arabic-language network Al Jazeera.
But once we have seen the entire video, we know that is the image that will stay with us forever. It is the horribly graphic condition of Hamza's body as it was reportedly delivered to his family the other day, a month after the boy's father took him out to join in the April 29 protest of the Syrian government's iron-fisted rule. Young Hamza was among those swept up and arrested that day. According to news reports, the Syrian government gave the family the body only after insisting that they sign a paper saying they would not reveal the condition of the body. They signed, but what they then saw was so horrendous the family decided the world must know.
While it is not clear precisely what killed him, the videos take all the world on a slow, narrated tour of his corpse that makes clear the torture that was inflicted upon this young son of the al-Khateeb family. We see: His head is swollen and purple. His neck, swollen (the narrator says it is broken). His body marked with bullet holes that apparently did not kill him, and clear signs of torture that included cigarette burns, welts and bruises. His kneecaps were smashed and the skin on his hands and feet was stripped away. His penis was cut off.
Because Syria has banned international journalists from the country, it has been impossible for correspondents to verify what transpired. CNN reported that the Syrian government denied the boy was tortured and explained that what we are seeing was the normal decomposition of the corpse. But CNN's John King correctly added that in normal decomposition, cigarette burns do not occur and genital organs are not severed.
Thousands of Syrians took to the streets this weekend protesting the torture of young Hamza. They carried placards with the boy's pleasant-faced photo nailed to sticks and chanted protests of the torture the world saw in the images of his mutilated corpse. The government countered with tanks to put down the protests.
We do not know yet whether the image of Hamza as we have seen him in the streets — or in the videos — will prove to be one of those images that galvanizes a people and topples a brutal regime, as happened in Tunisia and Egypt. But we do know that Syria's Bashar Assad not only inherited the government of his father, who murdered thousands to end a revolt, but also has chosen to follow in his dad's footsteps.
This week the world has seen — and will never forget — what was done to Hamza Ali al-Khateeb while he was in the custody of Assad's government.
© 2011 Scripps Howard News Service