A prayer…

September 6, 2015

The picture of the dead baby on the beach in Turkey brought me to my knees.  We already knew that there was a nasty war going on in Syria, that the hopeful spirit that permeated the so-called “Arab Spring” triggered a vicious crackdown, followed by an armed rebellion that turned into a godawful mess of a war.  I honestly haven’t followed it closely…just filed it away in my brain under “Heartbreaking situations far away:  nothing much I can do.”

But that picture- which was everywhere this week- online, on the front page of the paper, on television- demanded that I open the embarrassingly thin file, and dig a little deeper into the heartbreaking situation.  I learned that almost a quarter of a million people, half of whom are civilians, have been killed so far.  I learned that the international bodies that I trust to work on my behalf- the US government and the United Nations- have not been terribly effective, hampered by the danger and the complexity of the situation.  Sure, sanctions have been imposed- by the US, the UN, and even, in a historic first, by the Arab League- but they haven’t been successful.  11 million people have fled the country.  An estimated 7.6 million are internally displaced.  Consider that Syria’s pre-war population was only 23 million- 18.6 out of 23 million are displaced.  Over 80 %.  Those are huge numbers.  It’s hard to wrap our heads around them.

But we can wrap our hearts around a dead baby on a beach- a dead baby who could be our baby…child, grandchild, niece, nephew.  It breaks us open.

All of us are powerless in the face of huge numbers.  What moves us, what changes the world, are personal connections.  Stories.  Relationships.  Images that break our hearts forge bonds between us.  If we let it in, the compassion and empathy we feel for that one small human and his family transforms us, and we, in turn, help to transform the world.

But only if we ask ourselves, “what can we do?”  What can we do that is real? And helpful?  Only if we learn.

It may be that we’ll see more compassion toward undocumented immigrants here in the US as a result of this one photo.  It may be that people’s natural compassion for this family will cause them to reconsider their stand on immigration reform; to soften it if they are hard liners, to firm it up if they are in favor of compassionate reform.  (Even Trump knows better than to rant and rave about those ‘furiners’ who are ‘trying to steal our jobs’ right now.)

Maybe, just maybe, this is a moment of evolution for our species, as we all come to consensus that standing by while refugees drown trying to get to safety is completely unacceptable, and collectively find the will to do something about it.

Bombing Syria=Bad Idea

September 6, 2013

I have been thinking and reading and praying about Syria a lot lately; I think most of us have.  It’s a messy, complicated situation with no elegant solutions.  To sit by and do nothing in the face of chemical warfare?  Genocide?  That would be inhumane and unconscionable.  Sanctions?  Humanitarian aid?  Mobilizing global condemnation?  Apparently nigh on impossible, and unlikely to be effective.  And so the president seems to be falling back on ‘surgical strike’ as the correct response.

I actually understand and agree with a number of the arguments in favor of the attack.  In particular, Joe Lieberman and Jon Kyl had an op-ed piece in today’s Wall Street Journal that struck a chord.  They believe it’s important to respond militarily because we have said we would, and that our integrity and trustworthiness are just about the only thing preventing the total explosion of the powder keg that is the Middle East. Meanwhile, some of the arguments against don’t hold water with me.  In particular, the one that posits that we shouldn’t be helping other nations when our own is still a mess plays into a tribal nationalism that rubs me the wrong way. 

Nonetheless, I’ve come to the conclusion that bombing Syria is a very, very bad idea.  First of all, I fear that it will make things worse.  The fact that extremists in Iran are already threatening to retaliate indicates that the conflict will not remain ‘surgical’ or contained, but will likely spiral out of control.  Secondly, I have little hope that it will make things better.  Assad is a madman, by definition.  Anyone who would do what he did has lost touch with his humanity.  The bombing of his people will make him angrier and crazier; it won’t lead him to change his strategy.  Nor will it reassure our allies, as Mssrs. Liberman and Kyl assert.  After all, no matter how carefully the missiles are targeted, there will be civilian casualties.  There’s not a country in the Middle East where pro-American sentiment and anti-American sentiment don’t live shoulder to shoulder.  Putting myself in the shoes of our allies, I would be terrified that the next strike would be against my extremist neighbors- and that my own children might be civilian casualties.

Morality consists of an ever-evolving global consensus as to what is right and what is wrong.  We are getting closer and closer to complete consensus that chemical warfare is unacceptable.  The issue I have with the proposed strategy in Syria is that I believe missile strikes are just as bad.  Modern warfare distances the killer from the victim, dehumanizing both ‘targets’ and ‘non-combatant casualties.’  Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite, believed that the capacity to destroy whole cities as the touch of a button would inevitably lead to peace, as no one would be willing to press the button.  History has not played out that way, though.  We keep playing on the edge of atrocities, and I, for one, don’t want to be complicit. 

I am not a military strategist.  My children will tell you that I refuse to even play strategic board games with them.  I find them confusing and uncomfortable; I can’t separate chits on a board from the human lives they represent.  This is the connection we all need to make and embrace, most especially the congresspeople and actual military strategists who are debating and discerning the best path forward.  Human nature and the global moral consensus will guide us toward preserving innocent life, doing the least amount of harm possible, providing humanitarian relief, and continuing to seek those elusive diplomatic solutions.  There has to be a better way.