I’ve been watching and listening to a growing number of people in the United States get their hackles up about the moral atrocities going on in Syria. And, with each tear shed and each cry howled, I have also become increasingly disgusted with what passes for geopolitical comprehension in this country.
As a nation, the chorus for war against Assad and his allotment of chemical weapons grows louder and louder. He has become the new Saddam, the re-worked Noriega: he is the object of our moral outrage and, therefore, the caricature that makes us feel better about ourselves. We must intervene to end this “unspeakable outrage,” declares the President. This Administration cannot stand idly by while a brute kills his own people. This is the rationale, at any rate, just as similar verbiage became the rationale for the invasion of Iraq, the deployment of drones, the destruction of Vietnam, etc. etc.
The basic question asked by so many hand-ringing and concerned westerners is, are there not moments in which the US/Europe has the moral imperative to intervene in a conflict? Put another way, is there really an argument against intervention in instances in which innocents are being coldly slaughtered? It sounds straightforward enough: If bad people do bad things to innocent people, then those who see those bad things should try to stop them from happening, particularly if they have the power to do so. However, this ideological stance would have the U.S. play the part of beneficent world actor and would purport that there are moments in which the U.S. should act because it has the ultimate moral authority. This is the (in my view) frightening view that I think has guided too many of us in this nation, generation after generation. A basic question is left unasked- who is the U.S. to act? We avoid this question, I believe, out of a sense of inherent superiority. The logic goes like this: when we kill, we display some degree of moral compunction. In other words, we do it, but we hate it. When those Brown or Black people do it, it is because they are intrinsically savage. With the dead piling up higher and higher in our name, I do not think that we, as a nation, can claim to hate it.
Beyond this, though, there is a misinterpretation of history that undergirds the interventionist thinking that has taken hold among some on the Left and would have us believe that “the bloodied hands” of the U.S. and Europe is a thing of the past, or that somehow we have transcended a past of boorish atrocities and arrived at a place of moral superiority. Clearly, this is not the case, and I don’t think we need to review the long list of disturbing foreign policy positions to prove my point.
We, as individuals, may watch in horror at atrocities committed throughout the world and want them to end. What we tend not to see are the long stretches of history (and the current meddling by so-called Northern powers) in which interventions in those nations have led to or exacerbated the very atrocities from which we cringe. In the case of Syria, humanitarian interventionists cry over the civilians killed by the Assad government, but are only marginally disturbed by the prospect of civilians being killed by Tomahawk missiles built in Ohio. Or dying from exposure to depleted uranium. Or, if things get really wild, being melted by phosphorous munitions. (All of which, of course, happened to countless civilians of Iraq. We, after all, love our chemical weapons, just not theirs.) Equally, few seem perturbed about the civilians who would invariably be killed in the eventuality of a rebel victory (as if Jabhat an-Nusra has proven itself thus far to be a band of right-thinking fighters for justice). These, I suppose, are problems that will prick the conscience later, after the dust has settled, and our warships cruise out of the Mediterranean. At least we will have done the right thing at that moment!
What is missing is a more complex analysis of the manifold forms of violence, so that we can begin to move beyond reacting to the flashes of subjective violence (the horrors that scream out of the television screens and drag us to do something, anything!) and start dismantling the objective violence that lies all around us. Until then, I am certain that the body-count of Black and Brown people around the world will grow and grow as the United States plays its own brutal game of hopscotch across the globe.
TARECQ M. AMER is an urban geographer who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.