Most of the world is upset about Syria’s use of chemical weapons against their own people – and it should be. It was yet another act of evil, and Bashar al-Assad is a monster. The world will be a better place without him.
But let’s not pretend anyone is going to do anything to facilitate that. President Donald Trump’s “targeted” bombing of the airfield from which the latest chemical attack was launched might stop chemical weapons from being used for a while, but it won’t stop the slaughter in Syria. Because, although no one is willing to say it, the world doesn’t care.
That’s not to say people aren’t bothered. Children gasping for air is a visual that moves all but a few. Still, what happens in Syria to Syrians doesn’t affect the rest of the world in any tangible way. Therefore people are not moved to act. If they were, there would be a flood into Syria to join the rebels fighting both Assad and ISIS. As it is, millions of Syrians aren’t even willing to stand up for their fellow countrymen, as able-bodied men flee the country rather than fight for themselves.
Since those in the firing line don’t seem to care, the rest of the world isn’t willing to do what is necessary to prevent what happened this week from happening again. If it were, one of the roughly dozen previous chemical attacks would’ve caused action beyond bombing an airstrip. It didn’t.
The world likes to be seen denouncing monsters and their inhuman actions, but it doesn’t like actually doing anything about it unless forced. And the world is rarely forced to act in a meaningful way on matters of the actions of monsters.
The disaster in Syria is not the fault of the Trump administration. The Obama administration ignored multiple chemical weapons attacks by Assad because it was politically advantageous to do nothing. The media played along, casually mentioning the attacks happened – sometimes – and quickly moving on to the latest update on a Kardashian or some such distraction.
After his red line was obliterated by Assad, President Obama balked. He wasn’t necessarily wrong to do nothing; he was wrong to draw the line if he wasn’t willing to back it up. And he wasn’t willing.
Eventually he cut a deal for Syria to give up its “declared” chemical weapons, congratulated himself and went golfing.
They never cared about Syria, but they had to be seen as caring about Syria. The deal gave them exactly that. From a policy standpoint, I’m not sure that was wrong. Horrible things happen all the time. The civilized world can’t act simply because something horrific happened. But we should probably stop pretending to be surprised when they do.
When it comes to humanitarian crises that require more than money to address, we aren’t interested. People would rather text some number to donate a couple of bucks to a cause so they can feel good about themselves than do anything tangible. It’s a normal human reaction – if it doesn’t affect them directly, they’re not really wrong to.
By next week the world will have moved on to something else. But it’s not next week yet. The bombs just flew, so we have politicians and journalists mounting their high horses and patting themselves on their backs for caring and others condemning the action as unlawful. Everyone falls in line behind whatever suits their political needs, and nothing changes.
We – every one of us – have to pretend to be outraged by awfulness. We have to pretend to be angry over action or inaction. We have to pretend to be saddened by unspeakable acts. But the truth, deep down, is something different.
What happened in Syria is horrible, but it’s not unique. The world sat idly by when it happened in Syria before – as the bodies piled up in Darfur, as untold numbers were slaughtered in Rwanda and countless other places. Why should this time be any different?
When nearly 300 girls were kidnapped and forced into sex slavery by Boko Haram, the civilized world uniformly expressed outrage. To combat this evil act…a hashtag was launched: #BringBackOurGirls. Social media was flooded by people wanting to be seen caring. Soon after, people moved on. Most of the girls are still missing, and the world didn’t do a damn thing that mattered.
The world only cares to be seen caring; acting is of no interest. Do you think the Russian government gives a damn about a chemical weapons attack? That China lost sleep over genocide anywhere? It may be immoral for the world to watch genocide and not act, but it is the world’s default position.
If the great powers of the world really wanted to, they could wipe out ISIS and Assad and stop almost every atrocity. It would require a resolve it hasn’t shown and serious, unfettered military action. The current political climate of the West won’t allow it. Civilian casualties would be high and domestic support would collapse. We want to be heroes, but we want it to be neat. Like in the movies. But war isn’t neat.
If World War II happened today, the West would be passing resolutions condemning Germany and Japan, the Jews would be eliminated and nation after nation would fall to tyranny.
I don’t know what the answer is, but I know it’s not bombing an airfield or pretending a problem doesn’t exist. It lies somewhere in between and not with those who feel good about themselves for feeling bad for others. Maybe the first step is admitting that.