I am wondering about this international rush to punish Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons. I don’t like it. I fear that it is hypocritical and self-serving.
But first a caveat. I am sure—as sure as a twenty-first century guy who didn’t live through the gas attacks on the front lines of some WWI battlefield like Ypres—I am sure that the use of chemical weapons is a terrible evil. No one in his or her right mind would condone such use.
Why? It is a potentially painful way to die—perhaps like bleeding to death from shrapnel. It is a weapon that can be used as easily against civilians as against soldiers—like nuclear weapons or landmines. Chemical weapons are also a sort of mirror on human depravity. The suffering that followed their use in WWI has sunk so deep in (most) nation’s psyches that it is a place we just can’t go back to. But mostly, chemical warfare is thought of as especially evil because it is a weapon of mass destruction. Their use cannot be easily restricted to a front line or military installation. Noncombatants suffer.
And that is just how it is with war, especially modern war. The truth is, whereas several hundred civilians died in the chemical weapons attack earlier this month, a hundred thousand have already died in the larger Syrian civil war. By bullets. Missiles. IEDs. Infection and disease. Bombs. And beyond Syria the toll rises into the millions. Why don’t we pull together an international treaty to outlaw bullets? Nuclear weapons? What is it about chemical weapons that move us more than these other, arguable far more effective and destructive weapons?
I listened carefully to what John Kerry and Prime Minister David Cameron had to say, and while they were obviously outraged at the use of the chemical weapons, neither explained why this form of warfare was particularly immoral compared to the larger war or nuclear weapons or land mines It was almost as if their outrage made a more nuanced explanation of the moral issues unnecessary. “Can’t you see how mad I am. Of course the use of such weapons is evil beyond imagining!” They reminded me of the preacher who put in his notes "weak point; pound pulpit." This has happened before. Who can forget Colin Powell’s raising the spectre of chemical weapons before the start of the Iraq war?
I also believe our outrage at Syria’s use of chemical weapons is a rallying cry for the West right now because our cultural narcissism needs something to be outraged at to justify itself. We need to assuage a vague but collective sense of guilt we have that is occasioned by our pervasive lack of gravitas when it comes to almost everything we do or do not do, from popular entertainments to climate change.
Of course, cultural narcissism is only a partial explanation for the outrage. For others, this moral outrage is a cover for our own reliance on even more deadly weapons of mass destruction, such as nuclear weapons. This moral outrage justifies our reliance on the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us against. This moral outrage at Syria justifies our sales of arms to just about every nation that wants them. This moral outrage gives civil Christians the opportunity to act like peacemakers when generally they love nothing better than having their country build more chariots and rely on more horses. This moral outrage is a deep magic that excuses our boredom with news from Egypt and Syria and the Congo and so on. I mean, did you see Miley’s performance at the VMA? Now that was shocking!
I do not pretend to know what the answer is in Syria or Egypt or anywhere else in the world. But that does not mean just a violent response is the best one. It reeks of international “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” This approach has not made Middle East more prosperous or democratic or friendly to the West over the past fifty years or so. Remember how years before 9/11 Clinton was lobbing cruise missiles at Afghanistan’s terrorist training camps? Why should another round fired at Damascus help bring peace and prosperity or amity there? Why shouldn't it spark a wider war? Did shock and awe solve Iraq’s problems? Not knowing the right answer to Syria’s convulsions doesn’t mean we should fall back on solutions that have not worked before.
So tonight I am sad. I’m tied up in knots, actually. Partly it is the swelling moral outrage that demands military action, now! And partly, it is the lack of similar outrage over the first 100,000 to die there.