Even when almost everything possible has been said, it is still impossible to remain silent when faced with the horror that is Syria today.
In such a desperate situation it is crucially important not to be swayed by selective images. Of course the chemical attack was utterly inhuman and the resulting images almost unbearable to watch, but so were the images of children being killed and fatally burned when their school was the target of a bomb carrying a napalm-like agent. And here lies the danger of drawing a ‘red line’ when it comes to chemical weapons.
Looking back on the holocaust, nobody would argue that it was acceptable to carry out mass killing by a bullet to the back of the head, or carbon monoxide poisoning in the back of a sealed truck, but that somehow Hitler had crossed a red line when he used hydrogen cyanide in his extermination chambers. The folly of drawing a red line is that it implies that anything before that line is crossed is acceptable, or at least that it can be carried out with impunity.
But the killing of innocent civilians is unacceptable by whatever means it is carried out, and more so when those means are designed to terrify as well as exterminate. Ruthless killing of the innocent, without regard to any moral sense, is a demonstration of the free and controlled use of overwhelming power for political ends.
In the years that the world lived under the constant threat of nuclear war, the MAD doctrine was successful in preventing the use of nuclear weapons simply because the ability of the enemy to retaliate was certain and the resulting destruction to one’s own side unacceptable. The same applied to the banning of chemical weapons – which worked on the assumption that their use by both sides in a conflict would be mutually self-destructive. Once the threat of unacceptable retaliation is removed, regimes appear to act with impunity – as we see now in Syria.
It seems to me that two basic moral and political issues are raised by the present chaotic inability of the rest of the world to agree on how to respond effectively to the present crisis:
1. Sadly, it has to be recognized that a level of brutality and killing is regarded as acceptable to the international community, in the sense that – however much it may be verbally criticized – there is no general will to take action to prevent it from happening. There are plenty of murderous tyrants, but we only seek to remove those whose activities interfere with our own interests. Which brings us to the second point…
2. That national self-interest still dominates international thinking. Hence, action is proposed only when national self-interest appears to be threatened, as in Afghanistan, where the increased risk of terrorism at home is seen to justify action abroad.
The ethical argument used in such calculations is utilitarian. We seek the best outcome for ourselves and - when it suits us, or coincides with our own – for others as well. This then becomes problematic when we are not sure of the outcome of any possible course of action, as expressed by those who fear that the conflict in the Syria may spark a wider conflict through the Middle East. As has been pointed out, by opposing the Syrian regime, we may be encouraging exactly those extremist groups that pose a wider threat. Our inability to do anything to prevent the Assad regime’s brutality towards its own people creates exactly the situation that gives opportunity for Al Qaeda and other groups to flourish. Those who suffer injustice are most likely to give support to whoever appears to come to their aid.
Unfortunately, there are no simple answers to the present situation, but it is made worse by the acceptance of a level of violence that would be wholly unacceptable on a personal level. It is argued that, when dealing with teenagers, it is best to set down clear guidelines and stick to them, for uncertainty encourages a constant testing out of the boundaries of acceptability. The same is true when required to control a class of schoolchildren (said with feeling, as an ex-teacher!). What we see not within the international community is the plight of a teacher who has lost control and is uncertain how to regain it.
Our failure to know what to do when regimes step over the various red lines that we set is the result of years of selective interference based on self-interest. At some point, if we are to survive this 21st century, we need to strengthen international bodies to the point at which individual nations will know that it is never in their interest to act outside the bounds of international acceptability. But knowing how to strengthen the international level of civilization and enable it to agree and impose such agreement on individual nations, is a seemingly impossible task.
What we certainly do know is that the traditional ‘just war’ arguments – valid in their day and for the situation where individual nations ponder going to war with one another - need to be utterly revised if they are ever to match the complex needs of the present day. Our problem here is with ‘second order’ morality – namely the morality implied by how we respond to situations that we clearly regard as morally unacceptable, but over which we have only limited influence.
And meanwhile our televisions screens are filled with horror and our hearts go out to those who are forced to live through the pain or it all. What will they think of the rest of us as we look on helpless to do anything? Who could blame them if they grow cynical or take up a radical cause?