We readily identify with children anywhere because they bring out the humanness in us. That is, they remind us of our own childhood: when we also were dependent, vulnerable, innocent, curious, inquiring, spontaneous, honest, trusting—our humanity not yet “socialized” and circumscribed by conventional, nationalistic and religious beliefs. Thus appeals based on empathy for children are powerful, and can be used for good or evil. In the case of our government, the use of military force to protect children especially continues to cloak imperialistic policies, with Syria the latest example.
The Obama administration is appealing to Americans to support military strikes against Syria because the Assad government has allegedly used chemical weapons against its own citizens, with children especially cited as victims. An outraged Secretary of State John Kerry relied heavily on dead Syrian children to justify military action, declaring, “Let me be clear: The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders, by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity.” He continued, “I went back and I watched the videos . . . one more gut-wrenching time.” He then personalized it: “As a father, I can’t get the image out of my head of a man who held up his dead child, wailing while chaos swirled around him; the images of entire families dead in their beds without a drop of blood or even a visible wound; bodies contorting in spasms; human suffering that we can never ignore or forget.” (“John Kerry’s statement on Syria—full transcript,” www.theguardian.com, Aug. 26, 2013)
President Obama is using the deaths of children to help justify his decision to attack Syria. His statement on Syria began, “Ten days ago the world watched in horror as men, women and children were massacred in Syria in the worst chemical weapons attack in the 21st century. . . . the world can plainly see—hospitals overflowing with victims; terrible images of the dead.” He went on, “All told, over 1,000 people were murdered. Several hundred of them were children—young girls and boys gassed to death by their own government.” Calling for military “action . . . limited in duration and scope,” he said, “What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price? . . . If we won’t enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act,” he went on,” what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules?” (“Transcript: President Obama’s Aug. 31 statement on Syria,” By Washington Post Staff, www.washingtonpost.com, Aug. 31, 2013)
There is much American-caused “human suffering” that Secretary of State John Kerry has chosen to “ignore or forget.” In Kerry’s parallel universe, it is as if the “indiscriminate slaughter of . . . women and children and innocent bystanders” by non-chemical weapons is not a “moral obscenity.” Like the US-controlled UN sanctions imposed on Iraq that resulted in the deaths of some 500,000 children under the age of five between 1991 and 1998 alone. (See UNICEF report on the devastation caused by the sanctions, Aug. 12, 1999)
Similarly, in President Obama’s selective consciousness, never mind the Bush administration’s “flouting of international rules” in its pre-emptive invasion of Iraq, which then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan condemned as “illegal,” a violation of international law because it lacked UN Security Council approval. And Annan added words that expose Obama’s present hypocrisy: “Those who seek to bestow legitimacy must themselves embody it, and those who invoke international law must themselves submit to it.” ( “Annan Reiterates His Misgivings About Legality of War in Iraq,” By Warren Hoge, The New York Times, Sept. 22, 2004)
It is as if President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry are oblivious to the unconscionable destruction caused by the Bush administration’s illegal, falsely based, war of choice against Iraq. An American president did far more than “gas hundreds of children to death and pa[id] no price.”
Former president George W. Bush was allowed to get away with massacring over a million Iraq “women and children” and other “innocent [civilian] bystanders” because most of America’s accommodating mainstream media bought into, rather than scrutinized, Bush’s lie that Iraq had threatening weapons of mass destruction. And the status quo-guarding dominant media made sure that the killing of all those Iraqi “women and children and innocent bystanders” was not “in plain sight” of American television viewers. Nor are the over one million invisible Iraqi widows, and more than four million orphans, now floundering in the wake of Bush’s “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”
Like President Obama today, George W. Bush used children as an excuse for drawing an imperialistic “red line” in the sand, and justifying America’s horrible war crime against non-threatening, sanctions-weakened Iraq. Before launching his “illegal” pre-emptive invasion, Bush said, ”We owe it to our children, we owe it to our grandchildren to make sure that the dictator of Iraq never threatens our country, or our children, or our children’s children with the world’s worst weapons.” (“Remarks at the Republican Governors Association Fall Reception,” U.S. Government Printing Office, www.gpo.gov, September 19, 2002; The Boston Globe, Sept. 24, 2002) Bush even “drafted” countless other children to justify his pre-emptive, criminal war against Iraq: “From Afghanistan to Lebanon to the Palestinian Territories, millions of ordinary people are sick of the violence, and want a future of peace and opportunity for their children. And,” he continued, “they are looking at Iraq. They want to know: Will America withdraw and yield the future of that country to extremists—or will we stand with the Iraqis who have made the choice for freedom?” (“Transcript of President Bush’s address to the nation last night, as recorded by The New York Times, Jan. 11, 2002) Similar words echoed today by Obama. Today, Iraq is being torn apart by sectarian strife.
A “moral obscenity” here is The United Methodist Church building a monument to this war criminal, with the erection of The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum on the campus of Southern Methodist University. Another “moral obscenity” is the Obama administration continuing in Bush’s imperialistic footsteps, rather than prosecuting him and members of his administration for crimes against humanity.
A morally outraged President Obama announced, “Well over 1,000 people were murdered. Several hundred were . . . young girls and boys gassed to death by their own government.” Evidently, in Obama’s mind, murdering children is acceptable as long as they are not your own citizens—unless it is 16-year-old American Abdulrahman al-Awlaki who was killed by a U. S. drone in 2011, just two weeks after the targeted assassination of his American father, Imam Anwar al-Awlaki, who was denied his constitutional right of due process.
This public moral outrage is from a national sovereignty-violating president, whose increased drone strikes have killed countless innocent “women and children and innocent bystanders” in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. And, when first responders rush in to help the victims, they too are targeted and killed by drone strikes. The word “countless,” in assessing the number of victims of American drone strikes, is appropriate because the Pentagon classifies all males of military age in a strike zone as “militants.” So much for “innocent bystanders.” “Countless” is also used because of the U.S. military’s tactic of denying and minimizing the number of victims of drone and other air strikes, until confronted with irrefutable evidence.
“Militants?” Or, as reported, people like the Afghan “villagers, crazed with grief . . . collecting mangled bodies in blankets and shawls and piling them on three tractors . . . 113 bodies being buried, including those of many women and children” after “American airstrikes . . . had killed dozens and perhaps more than 100 civilians in western Afghanistan,” and “threaten to stiffen Afghan opposition to the war just as the Obama administration is sending 20,000 more troops to the country.” The story of this “moral obscenity” continues: the governor of Farah Province was quoted as saying that “the villagers have brought two tractor trailers full of pieces of human bodies to his office to prove the casualties had occurred, with “everyone at the governor’s office . . . crying, watching that shocking scene.” (“Civilian Deaths Imperil Support for Afghan War,” By Carlotta Gall, The New York Times, May 8, 2009)
Shocking scenes of America’s victims and their grieving loved ones may be found in villages and rural areas throughout Afghanistan—and Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere—but not on American television newscasts. Not “in plain sight” of Americans. Instead, we repeatedly see shocking images of “women and children and innocent bystanders” allegedly “gassed to death by their own government”—and Secretary of State and father John Kerry urging military action, and obviously more killing, in Syria with, ”I went back and I watched the videos . . . one more gut-wrenching time . . . [and] as a father I can’t get the image out of my head of a man who held his dead child, wailing.” Tragically, that Syrian father is like the above cited Afghan “villagers crazed with grief.” Sadly Kerry does not see the connection. Nor do American television viewers see the connection, because the “villagers crazed with grief,” as a result of our government’s aggression in our name, are not “in plain sight” on our television screens.
Secretary of State Kerry called Syrian president Bashar al-Assad a “thug and a murderer,” and must be held accountable for using “chemical weapons against his people,” or “other brutal dictators will do the same.” (Kerry Says Assad, A ‘Thug and Murderer,’ Was Behind Attack,”
By Mark Memmott, news.wypr.org, Aug. 30, 2013) Our government’s history is that of helping to install and support dictators who demonstrate the willingness to rule their people as “thugs and murderers” in the interests of American imperialism.
President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry reveal that their “red line” in the sand covers up an immoral line. Their pronouncements indicate that it is permissible to murder “women and children and innocent bystanders” with “shock and awe bombs” and drones and sanctions, but not with chemical weapons. Their hypocrisy reveals a selective memory.
As former President Bush was laying the rhetorical groundwork for war against Iraq by demonizing President Saddam Hussein, Robert Fisk wrote a column in The Independent called “What the U. S. President wants us to forget.” It is what President Obama also chose to forget. Fisk wrote, “In 1988, as Saddam Hussein destroyed the people of Halabja with gas, along with tens of thousands of other Kurds . . . President Bush senior provided him with $500 million in U.S. government subsidies to buy American farm products . . . We must forget,” Fisk continued, “that the following year, after Saddam’s genocide was complete, President Bush senior doubled this subsidy to $1bn, along with germ seed for anthrax, helicopters and the notorious ‘dual-use’ material that could be used for chemical and biological weapons.” (Oct. 9, 2002)
Similarly, a front-page New York Times story reported that during the 1981-88 Iraq-Iranian war, U.S. intelligence agencies provided Iraq with satellite photographs of the positions of Iranian forces, aware that Iraqi commanders would use chemical weapons in the decisive battles of the war. Why such support? The story said, “The United States decided it was imperative that Iran be thwarted, so it could not overrun the important oil-producing states in the Persian Gulf.” (“Officers Say U.S. Aided Iraq in War Despite Use of Gas,” By Patrick E. Tyler, Aug. 18, 2002; For more evidence of the U.S.’s unclean hands regarding the use of chemical weapons, see “Justice in Iraq,” By Kevin McKiernan, The Boston Globe, Feb. 9, 2005)
President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry also seem to “ignore or forget” another horrible event of “human suffering.” When the war with Japan was decisively won, the U. S. dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing over 100,000 thousand “women and children and [other] innocent bystanders,” and injuring almost 100,000 more. The primary motive for this horrible war crime was to gain “credibility” as the world’s greatest super power. And now it is a matter of attacking Syria to maintain that “credibility.” The U.S. must do what it says, so that other nations will do what it says. Thus Obama’s decision to attack Syria is about “credibility,” as he drew a “red line” in the sand, and the Assad government crossed that line by allegedly using chemical weapons to kill his own people. “Not boots on the ground,” Obama and Kerry assume us, just bombs in the air. Never mind that their so-called “limited, surgical” attack will kill, and lead to the killing of, far more Syrian “women and children and innocent bystanders.” It is about “credibility, not children. The president of the most powerful nation on earth must not appear weak, else other countries under its thumb will get out of hand.
The above-cited crimes against humanity our government has committed indicate that attacking Syria is not about moral outrage over “young girls and boys gassed to death by their own government.” That is believed to be a pretext for toppling another un-controllable government, and weakening its aligned nations like Iran, to achieve greater access to the oil- and natural gas-rich Middle East. It is not about “credibility,” as President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry emphasize, but about crude oil. It is not about ethics, but about energy. (See “Syria intervention plan fueled by oil interests, not chemical weapon concern, By Nafeez Ahmed, The Guardian, Aug. 30, 2013
It is about credibility, but of a different kind. The inherent, inalienable right kind that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about when he said 50 years ago, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” The credibility of all children! And four years later, Dr. King called his own government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” in declaring that Vietnamese children were equally credible. And, sadly, on the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, along comes President Obama as the main speaker—providing a symbol, without substance. Obama has helped to turn Dr. King’s dream into a nightmare for countless children and their families.
It is about credibility, but of another kind. The kind Jesus talked to his disciples about when they argued among themselves, and asked him, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” According to Matthew’s Gospel, he put a child in their midst and said, “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (18: 1-45)
Credibility is not about being the greatest, but about being human, i.e., open, inquiring, honest, trusting, reciprocal, just– qualities that bind children to adults, and adults to one another—and communities and nations together. Credibility is about being relational, not retaliatory.
Hans Blix gets at what credibility may achieve. Head of the UN inspection team that found no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, he writes that “condemnation” of the use of chemical weapons in Syria “is not enough. With 100,000 killed and millions of refugees,” he states, “the civil war itself is a ‘moral obscenity.’” He recognizes that “much evidence point to the guilt of the Assad regime,” but cautions, “Would not due process require that judgment and consideration of action take place in the UN security council and await the report of the inspectors that the UN has sent to Syria—at the demand of the UK and many other UN members?” He then makes the critical point:, “The [UN security] council must seek to achieve not just an end to chemical weapons use but an end to all weapons use, by a ceasefire.” He reminds everyone, “As was planned not long ago by the US and Russia, the council must seek to bring about a conference at which relevant parties and states can form an interim authority. The alternative,” he says, “is continued war in Syria and worsening international relations.” (“Even if Assad Used Chemical Weapons, The West Has No Mandate to Act as a Global policeman: By ordering air strikes against Syria without UN security council support, Obama will be doing the same as Bush in 2003,” The Guardian/UK, Aug. 29, 2013)
It is about a different kind of credibility. The credibility of people of faith and their leaders. Our political leaders need to hear the moral voices and see the presence of religious leaders and their congregations, demanding that this time, with Syria, they use diplomacy, not destruction– for the sake of all the “women and children and innocent bystanders.”
Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, is a diplomate in the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy. Both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister, he has written research reports, essays and articles on racism, war, politics, religion and pastoral care. His book, A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, is available on Amazon.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.