In light of the recent escalation of Syria talk, war talk, and war violence, I can’t help but cry out from the middle of the places that men in far away desks ceaselessly write about and talk about.
If I could speak into the ears of American power…
3 September, 2013
Last night I sat on my rooftop with a friend from Damascus—my “brother by trauma” you could call him. The temporary calm in the air sufficed to make it a great evening.
Two days before, I was sitting in Zahlé, Lebanon, the Christian-majority gateway to the Beka’a Valley. Posters of Hassan Nasrallah lined the streets of villages that lead to the city. I remember clutching my passport as I passed the first sign, unsure if it would be wiser to keep it close, or to keep it far.
I was meeting two Syrians in Zahlé, both of whom I work with through NGO partnerships. Their lives, work, and families are in Damascus, but Lebanon is the closet we can get to them, and the farthest they can leave from Syria. Very few places want a Syrian these days. It is far easier to throw money at someone than to accept them into your home.
“You shouldn’t be scared. I’m the one who has to go back into the fire” one of them told me, as she showed me the latest pictures of her children. It was 15 minutes before President Obama was going to be making an announcement. All of us were trying to eat dinner as the TV flashed images of Bashar al-Assad and dead children. Some of us were over-eating, tapping our legs compulsively, and others weren’t eating, just taking small bites but breathing loudly in that distinct way that precedes tears. “Turn it off,” one said. “There is no need for this.”
I was terrified. And that wasn’t even one percentage of what the Syrians around me felt. The Syrian woman next to me noticed our shared emotions. She comforted me—and ironic role for her of all people to play—when I was scared what my President was going to decree. Was he going to strike? I would surely hear the jets overhead as we were sitting just 90 minutes by car from Damascus. It wasn’t the strike that worried me, it was the implications. The “and then…?”
Back on my balcony two days later, with the son of that same Syrian woman I was with in Zahlé, we talked about President Obama, about fear, and about death. “This too shall pass” we both said at nearly the same time. “Kolo Maashi” in Arabic. But, the important question was how, and if, we will pass through it.
My friend said: “I know what you felt,” referring to the night in Zahlé. Tremendous uncertainty. Absolute lack of control. Anger. Sadness. “That feeling is constant for me in Damascus. Every day I think of who I would like to die next to. Death becomes a potential part of every single day. It sinks deep into your mind.“
As we were talking, I got a phone call from another friend, a young man of 22 years old whose nephews, aunt, uncle were killed in Ghouta on August 21st. “It’s complicated” he told me. “So many more will die,” he said, referring to President Obama’s speech. His hatred of Bashar—of the Alawites and the Shias—will not end with the end of the Al-Assad reign. It will seep into his children, his grandchildren. The stripping-bare sense of death will not leave him. Survival will remain paramount, whether here in Jordan or back in his beleaguered home.
Some say 1,400 died on the 21st of August. Some say 350. Some day 3,000. It wasn’t the number that died; it was the way they died that mattered. We raged, we speculated, we brought out the harshest rhetoric that we would find, trying to appeal to the morality that we Americans keep tucked in our pockets for when we need to use it.
I don’t recall such speech about Congo. Or Rwanda. Or Myanmar. Or Darfur. Or Guatemala (where I have seen pain that has lasted for generations since 1954’s coup). Was it because the people in those countries died in acceptable, conventional ways? Was it because they were not from a region that we are scared of? Was it because their countries were too close of allies? Was it because the numbers weren’t enough? I assure you, Sir, the numbers were more than enough and continue to be great. Death has not slowed on our watch.
“We must intervene” you say. “We can’t let other leaders think they can get away with these things.” To be frank, it is not fear of the USA, fear of punishment, that prevent evil-doers from doing evil. With respect to my country, I must say that such an argument is dangerously shallow. Would you be proud if your child’s good behavior was only the result of his or her tremendous fear of you as a parent? Is that not the same backwards incentive-structure that dictators themselves use? Moreover, the world has seen America sit idly as hundreds of brutal civil conflicts raged—our inaction in moral crises is well documented.
Perhaps all this noise of a strike is because we don’t like watching people die slowly, because we can accept gunshots and bombs but have not culturally reconciled with the memories of mustard gas that we took a hit of in WWI. As is common, we have also dished out the same terror we received—napalm, depleted uranium bullets—in the name of preventing evil from spreading. Chemical weapons in particular hold a sensitive spot in our political consciousness. The images of their use make us cringe. But. I would like to say with every ounce of seriousness I have that it should never be discomfort that stirs conviction. It should be conviction that awakens and stirs discomfort.
When death is far from you, you deal it lightly. And when it is close, you deal it even more lightly. So to have America slap Bashar on the wrist—what will happen then? As if Al-Assad has any problem killing more people. Slap him and then what? He uses chemical weapons again, and you slap him again? All the while, you spend money, and Syrians keep dying. And, if this strike accomplishes its proclaimed goal of dissuading further use of chemical weapons, will you be proud? Will it be “worth it” when he simply returns to killing the conventional way? What an odd goal. With that I am not advocating regime change, because to do so would require sticking Americans into a quagmire that we once again don’t understand. We can create a vacuum that we again will not be able to control.
If you are convinced that Al-Assad committed this heinous crime, and if you sincerely think that a military response is required, then at least work tirelessly to build a coalition of support. You cannot drive out darkness with darkness. You cannot win a fight in the shadows. And even if you win, you will not come up with a head held high. Darkness can only be driven out with light. Bring light—bring as much evidence as possible. Our past errors as a nation have broken the trust that people have in America’s claims of morality. We cannot trust a 4-page document that assures us that “credible sources” have given “hard evidence.” The very fact that I began taking Arabic classes was the result of a desire to fix so many of the wrongs my country has committed.
Both parties, America and Syria’s regime, are ready to deal death—one has already done that to 100,000 of his people, and the other sits at desks very powerful and very far away.
I live day by day in the midst of this crisis that you would like to end. I, too, would love it to end. Coming from a life in suburban Massachusetts into counseling and education work with the most broken (yet capable) people I could imagine—I want the pain to end. Their story is not my story, but I cry with them. I live with and love Syrians rich and poor, with Sunni, Christian, and Shi’a, with FSA and pro-regime families who fall all across the spectrum of support for your intervention. Position aside, all agree—“this path will create more death.”
America has created fear, for she herself has been raised on it, and malnourished by it. Those who create fear often operate with impunity. Fear destroys logic. Fear is self-centered. Fear wears many masks, but none of them humble. None of them truth. None of them light.
You do not stop evil with a slap on the wrist. You do not stop a runner by cutting off his legs—he will run on blades. You do not destroy a car by slashing its tires—they will be replaced.
Moreover, it—Syria—is not yours to destroy. She may be tormented by a twisted power, a dangerous leader, but so are many places. The urge to act in this case is not grounded in a consistent application of professed principles. It is grounded in a deep-rooted and dangerous cultural predilection to reduce complexity for the sake of calm. This conflict is complex, and has serious implications for every man, woman, and child in the West. To reduce that complexity with aggression is the response of a scared animal. You must know—by now—that evil does not bow to aggression.
The world is complex. It is nasty and brutish. I feel the nasty, the brutish, every day, as I traverse sad deserts from Amman to the second largest refugee camp in the world, where thousands of beautiful people are trapped in another odd system we’ve created—the humanitarian aid system—where they are fed and clothed, and still alive, but barely so. Barely with agency. Barely recognized beyond their basic needs. With all the money spent, we hardly make things better. We hardly ever get to know who we are helping before proposing a bigger solution for them. One that results in death, at times
I cried with my friends whose families were gassed in Ghouta. I sobbed, Sir. I cried with my friends whose friends have been killed by the FSA. I cried with a young man as he mulled the option of martyring himself for the sake of finding “a purpose.” Do you understand that? Do you understand the level of human engagement and support it takes to end the tiniest bit of suffering? This pain will be generational. The damage is no longer carried only in the bombs and the gasses. It is carried within the individuals that have suffered to-date. To address that danger—the danger that is caused by trauma and prolonged pain—that is a much harder, yet much nobler, intervention to pursue.
Open your doors, open your wallets, prepare Syria’s neighbors in case her physical dangers and evils spread, but, for the sake of my brothers and sisters—for the sake of [names removed]—do not strike. Prepare and empower from the outside to ensure that those eventually returning will be less broken than they otherwise will be. Invest so much where we can bring redemption in the face of suffering.
I leave you with Tolkien, with a sentence to reflect on as you pursue a short-term solution to end America’s discomfort: “For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”
Aid Worker, Amman, Jordan