Secretary of State John Kerry says the Syrian government killed 1,429 people in a chemical weapons attack in Damascus. He says the dead include 426 children. He calls it “an inconceivable horror.”
BBC news reports that “(U.S. intelligence says) Syrian military chemical weapons personnel were operating in the area in the three days before the attack. Satellite evidence shows rockets launched from government-held areas 90 minutes before first report of chemical attack. The videos (scores of them) show symptoms consistent with exposure to nerve agent.”
The violence in Syria has already killed more than 100,000 people since 2011, and produced nearly 2 million refugees. But death by nerve gas … well, it strikes a nerve. Civilian death. Children spasming, dying.
In the Arizona Republic on Sept. 1, I read about Syria posturing defiantly after allegations of chemical weapons use. Syria, it seems, has no idea how or why anyone would want to make up such a wild story. Syria says the rebels did it, then turned around and blamed Syria. And the media has it out for Syria. And Russia is standing by the reputation of Syria.
Either way, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s response to threats of United States military retaliation is, essentially, “Bring it, suckers!” Then, according to that same article, Assad readied his people by (gulp) moving military equipment into civilian neighborhoods and villages.
Got to hand it to your fearless leader, Syria. That guy really has your back.
I feel for our president. This is Loneliness In Leadership 101. If he acts unilaterally — that is, without U.N. sanction or vote of his own Congress — then he appears courageous, morally strong and decisive to some. But to others he is then an isolationist warmonger. If he waits to garner at least congressional buy-in (the United Nations has been long gelded since Truman’s inspired vision), then he is seen as respecting the Constitution. Patient, measured and a lover of peace. But to others, he is then indecisive. Lacking moral courage. Withering away what might be left of our nation’s global credibility.
And U.S. citizens begin their mind-numbing drone of “We can’t get involved!” And I think of my friend, Paul, who once presented to me his views of pacifism with surgical succinctness: “If you witness me being attacked while you are holding a superior weapon, and then later tell me you couldn’t get involved because you are a pacifist … then I’m going to hold your pacifism in contempt.”
And I think of 2003. I’m in New Jersey, at the 32nd annual Scholars’ Conference on Holocaust Studies. Linda Melvern is one of the keynote speakers. She is a British investigative journalist, and the second vice president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars. In 2000, she published the book, “A People Betrayed: The role of the West in Rwanda’s genocide.”
She nails my feet to the floor. She turns my spine to ice. She ends by saying: “You Americans! So concerned about your president’s (Clinton) sexuality. I’m here to tell you that the defining scandal of the Clinton administration was knowing everything that was happening in Rwanda … and doing nothing.”
It would be easier, of course, at least more credible, if the U.S. had a consistent moral policy of what sorts of evils rightly demanded the use of our superior military strength. As opposed to what sort of political interests probably do not justify our use of force.
But, be that as it may … sarin gas. Children. For the love of God.
In my heart, the jury is out on this one. I’m no pacifist. Nor am I a hawk. But doing something already makes eminently more sense to me than invading Iraq did. I pray for our Congress. For our president.
But one thing I do know for sure: Evil is what happens when good people do nothing.
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Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.