What has happened in Syria over the last week or so (if not much longer) is horrific and deplorable. I’m not trying in any way to diminish that. However, when we start asking ourselves what our reaction ought to be I think we need to do some more reflecting.
My concern is less pragmatic – less about the track record and effectiveness of humanitarian intervention (although certainly that’s pertinent), etc. – and more introspective. Why do we feel the moral imperative to act? Where does that come from? I should be clearer: I’m not asking why we feel like we should intervene but instead why we feel so adamantly that we must. Perhaps we can write off much of it as good-hearted people of influence horrified and compelled to action. Even if I’m being generous (ha), I don’t think that accounts for all of our outrage.
It seems to me we’re also interested in doing something about Syria because we need to be able to tell ourselves that we’re the kind of people who don’t stand for things like this. Such a visual and overwhelming tragedy seems to compel us to assert influence because we so badly want to be the people who don’t stand for the dehumanization and murder of innocent men, women, and children. What’s the difference between wanting to be those people and actually being them? It’s the same difference between fighting for your values and living up to them.
If we were the sort of people who refused to remain inactive in the face of such ghastly crimes, why didn’t we react similarly to the fact that Chicago is on its way to its second year in a row with over 500 homicides (and we’re not talking about the whole of Chicago-the-third-largest-city, but sections of it much smaller on the periphery)? Or to, just a week ago, the Egyptian military killing hundreds of innocent protesters? The list goes on.
The terrible events in Syria are graphic, they’re newsworthy. But it seems they’re also more easily principled, more easily moralizable. That isn’t to say we don’t care about people in Chicago or Egypt, but those aren’t as easily cast in principled positioning. Which is the problem. I’m not trying to compare and contrast tragedies, but I’m worried any intervention in Syria would be more about our desire to be the kind of people who would intervene than it would be about about actually being people promoting human dignity and life. Why? Does that difference even matter? I think so, because it means we’ll continue to choose principled outrage and overlook equally or more tragic and pressing issues elsewhere (read: all over the place). It also lets us separate from unprincipled parts of our past or present, letting us flaunt our principled positions so as to distract from/cover up our more unprincipled state of being. Not to mention an ends-means compromise is much more palatable when principles are at stake, which is perhaps the most worrisome thing of all.