The front page of today's edition of The Times bears the image you see above. In any other place, perhaps in any other newspaper, it might just be a picture of a young child asleep in its cot, oblivious to the world around it. But the sad truth is that without even reading any supporting context, you and I both know the setting and the circumstances. For beneath the picture in The Times is the simple caption:
One of the 49We know now that this child is dead - not the result of accident, its own misadventure or illness, but systematic murder, one of 49 children executed by bullet or knife. Other pictures have emerged showing children of all ages missing pieces of skull, clear evidence of rounds administered at close range, the same way a pest controller might exterminate vermin. Except that these are children, the most innocent of victims of crimes that belie comprehension by people of rational mind.
The Times carries details - and, mercifully, no more photographs - of more grisly scenes from Houla, each more gruesome than the last, many suggesting unfathomable brutality, and all as perplexingly incomprehensible.
War is ugly. Anyone who thinks that the use of real bullets against real human bodies is like an episode of The A-Team, in which gunfire is plentiful but nobody spills a drop of blood, would be wrong. But real war, where the combatants have a point to prove, have uniforms to define them, and at least the weapons with which to engage each other equally, may be morally debatable, but explainable.
The atrocity in Houla warrants no explanation. There is no rationalization anyone can offer that will elucidate the strategic, military or political logic for slicing the arm off a young girl, or tying a young boy's hands together before shooting him at point blank range, rendering his skull and its contents asunder.
The United Nations is of no doubt who was responsible, stating categorically that the massacre was the work of Bashar al-Assad's civilian shabiha thugs. In addition to the 49 children, a further 30 or 40 adult civilians were also murdered, in much the same manner.
The UN also claims that 20 civilians were killed by shelling, probably by tanks. Think about that for a second: tanks shells are constructed using a explosive charge shaped like a fist to 'punch' through solid armour - i.e. other tanks. Nowhere in the tank instruction manual does it recommend using tank shells on the flesh of unarmoured, unprotected and innocent human beings.
Obviously, the Assad regime is claiming innocence, blaming "armed terrorists" hell-bent on destroying what flimsy chances of peace exist in Syria. But with every bankrupt statement from Damascus, the nose of the Syrian government grows ever longer, Pinnochio-style, as more innocent children are murdered in their beds.
Perhaps now the world will act. It takes a desperate tipping point like Houla for governments elsewhere to take action. The images coming out of Syria may galvanise support for foreign military intervention, until now an unpalatable notion for fear that it might spark wider conflagration in the Middle East, especially with Israel champing at the bit to attack Syria's neighbour, Iran, and sectarian violence threatening to unhinge the restoration of Lebanon as the Middle East's recreational jewel.
Massacres against civilians became international turning points in the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. Images of emaciated prisoners, victims of ethnic cleansing, created uncomfortable echoes of Auschwitz, Belsen and Treblinka, Hells-on-Earth that were unimaginable in the 20th Century until they were discovered, and considered unimaginable ever again until history started repeating itself in the former Yugoslavia. Here, though, NATO dealt with its guilt and took action.
Likewise, up to a point, NATO - or at least France and the UK - dealt with its guilt in Libya, believing that it could no longer countenance its past courtship of a dictator when he was now brutally suppressing opposition. History will be the better judge of whether further human abhorrence was prevented in Libya, seeing as sectarianism is continuing. As in Iraq, removing the snake's head is sometimes only a partial remedy.
I won't begin to suggest that I have any profound intellectual understanding of the complexities of the Middle East. I just about grasp the suggestion that taking full military action against Syria would be too difficult to launch. But then they said the same in 1991, when "complexities" balanced the first Gulf War on a knife-edge of regional diplomacy. And I dare say that launching D-Day in 1944 was hardly the military equivalent of pulling on a Nike T-shirt bearing the "Just Do It" slogan.
Waking up this morning in the Florida sunshine to the picture you see at the top of this post brought on a pang of white man's guilt. But as I commence another day in one paradise, there are 108 Syrians waking up in their own paradise. And maybe they are asking at what point the rest of the world can stand by while a government carries out acts of unimaginable depravity against children, as occurred in Houla.