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Imagining Syria


After Charles died, I tried to convince friends and acquaintances that complaining—squandering even a minute of happiness—is an extravagance they’d regret. Eventually I realized that death of a spouse or loved one couldn’t be understood until it’s experienced. Maybe that’s protection, insulation. Really, how could we approach each day if we knew at the molecular level the agony of bereavement?

I think of this now when I hear the blustering of men devoid of empathy. Of women barren of compassion. Those too blind to see.

This morning when I ran, I passed a sign in front of an enclave of alley shops. It said, “Who’s Next”. Syria. Syria is next, I thought.

A few weeks ago, when running, I heard a man on a phone, a pay phone. “This is the United States of America and this is my son I’m talking about.” I’ve noticed him before, with several bags, asleep on a bench, wrapped in a blanket despite the heat. I’ve thought about him, wanting to know more. Wanting to know what he meant when he said, “This is the United States of America . . .”

This is the United States of America, whose “leadership” is cutting deals to commit acts of savagery in Syria, undaunted by public opposition. During Tuesday’s Senate hearing, Sen. John McCain played iPhone poker. Yes, that’s right. While his colleagues heard about rogue regimes and horror, the jingoist was losing thousands of dollars in fake money. But he’d had his say the day before, and his mind, set on war, is inflexible.

I am trying to imagine what it must be like to live in Syria, to be Syrian. Really, I have no reference point, other than a natural disaster, a tornado whose force shattered window glass, blowing scalpel-like shards to amputate bedside table legs. Oh, and lift the roof off our house.

More than 2 million Syrian refugees have fled their country since the civil war began in March of 2011. The number’s expected to reach 3 million by 2013’s end. Think about this. Think about it as you have dinner, watch your favorite TV show, brush your teeth, make love, pour the coffee, kiss the children goodbye before they catch the school bus, as you drive to work.

What would you say to your children? How would you comfort them? How would you tell them that America is poised to explode still more carnage? Really, what would you say? Would you tell those old enough to grasp the concept of hypocrisy that the US condemns the use of chemical weapons even though it is the US that has used and provided them (Agent Orange, white phosphorus, depleted uranium)?

You could explain—that the US establishes the rules governing which countries can use chemical weapons and also determines which countries can include nuclear weapons in their arsenals. That this is American exceptionalism at work.

Probably, you would hold your children close and then say, “Gather a few things you want to take, just a few. We have to leave?” And then answer their question with, “No, I don’t know when we’ll return.”

To what will they return?

And what about those who can’t leave? Those who have no means, the sick, the old?

How does anyone make sense of the senseless?

Think about it.

That Barack Obama will cross a line because he’s determined a “red line” has been crossed. That Obama represents a country that’s crossed red lines for more than 200 years, committing crimes against humanity with each crossing.

From the Rose Garden last Saturday, Obama said with customary arrogance, “We are prepared to strike whenever we choose.”

And on Monday, after McCain and Lindsey Graham met with the president, McCain said it would be “catastrophic” if congress fails to approve the president’s proposal—that our credibility would be “shredded.” (Someone needs to be reminded that US credibility was shredded long ago and that life, our ecosystem, should be the consideration.)

Bloodthirsty Graham then said, “The president has to fix this. We urged the president to up his game.”

Ah, there’s the distillate. It’s a game. Another war game. But it isn’t a game to Syrians. It’s real, deadly.

During Tuesday’s Senate hearing, Sec. of State John Kerry was asked if there would be American boots on the ground. He replied that this wouldn’t be off the table. When Sen. Bob Corker challenged, Kerry reversed. “There will not be American boots on the ground in respect to the civil war.” (What exactly does that mean?) In closing, Kerry said not acting would turn America into “spectators of slaughter.”

It’s more accurate to say that a military strike, even a limited one, is an escalation serving to perpetuate America’s role of slaughterer?

An absence of understanding, of being unable to GET the essence of man-made suffering, is not insulation, not self-protection. Instead it’s a separation from empathy.

Let the rest of us imagine we are Syrian. And never be too blind to see.

Missy Beattie has written for National Public Radio and Nashville Life Magazine. She was an instructor of memoirs writing at Johns Hopkins’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Baltimore. Email:

Missy Beattie has written for National Public Radio and Nashville Life Magazine. She was an instructor of memoirs writing at Johns Hopkins’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in BaltimoreEmail:

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