We were attacked on Sept. 11, nearly 12 years ago to the day. And our raw anger resonated out for quite some time over that awful event. We were rightly furious. We wanted justice and vengeance. And we chased Osama bin Laden out of Afghanistan, then turned to Saddam Hussein, fearing he would hurt us with weapons of mass destruction — which we never found.
Over a dozen years later, the anger over Sept. 11 is certainly not gone. We still have deep emotions, but much of the sentiment has morphed into a type of emotional exhaustion, a war weariness, a let’s-fix-our-own-problems first feeling. We spend more on the military than numerous other powers combined, but our last decade has delivered hard proof that money and might don’t fix political problems abroad. For instance, in the Middle East, the Sunnis and the Shiites don’t care how much money or lives or missiles Americans throw into their conflicts. They have deep cultural and political differences that we can’t fully comprehend or fix with force.
Whenever I consider international issues, I always do the flip test: What if it was here? For example, what if our left/right gnashing of teeth went beyond blogging and entered a new, widespread physical level of vitriol — an actual war? We have deep emotions tied to “liberals” and “conservatives” and what the names mean in our society. We have family divides rooted in cultural conflicts. Imagine our familiar ugliness suddenly spreading like wildfire in shocking ways. Now, imagine outside intervention. Could China come in and help us work out our problems? Would Chinese armed guards help bring peace if our society collapsed in a terrible conflict.
This hypothetical seems absurd, for sure. But failure to look at the flip side of intervention — how we would respond to outsiders — is a type of blindness. And the last thing we need now is to walk into another inferno without fully seeing.
Of course, we’re watching the awfulness in Syria right now and feeling pressure to respond once again. If you go on moral grounds, intervention certainly seems warranted. A leader is clinging to power by killing off those who oppose him, even, apparently, with chemical weapons. Weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical and biological arms, are considered a great no-no in our world. And that’s good. Who wants them? It is a terrible human cruelty that no person should suffer.
But is a particular form of death more worthy of intervention than another? Back in 1994, an estimated 800,000 people in Rwanda were slaughtered in a short period of time, with the machete a primary killing weapon. No one intervened. Replace machetes with gas and would the world have jumped in to help? Aren’t all acts of extermination by leaders morally corrupt no matter the method of killing? Isn’t intervention in such cases always warranted?
An estimated 100,000 people have died so far in the Syrian civil war, several hundred of whom died in a chemical attack. This is a terribly sad situation. But is the cause of death of some victims the reason to go to war? Or, must we look at the situation in broader terms?
Naturally, our discussion in this country seems to revolve around what this means for Obama politically. This is truly annoying and a distraction from the bigger question we must answer for ourselves: Are we the world’s police?
We seem to straddle the line of wanting to intervene and wanting to pull back when the world witnesses moral corruption, such as by Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
Remember, the United States has gone through isolationist periods and times of deep involvement in foreign conflicts. The U.S. sat out of WWII for two years before we were attacked. Before Pearl Harbor, there was great sentiment not to get involved. We know that war is a form of murdering each other on a mass scale. It is truly awful. And that is why we respect those who volunteer for such efforts. We recognize that being in their shoes is truly tough, a sacrifice on the greatest scale, where even survival carries terrible scars.
And that’s why sending our kids overseas requires a collective emotional commitment. After 9/11, there was a real emotional push to seek out villains and punish them. But part of the legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan is this: who wants to send their children to a war-torn part of the world where we may linger for decades without clear battle lines or enemies? We’ve seen so many of our families suffer through this over the past dozen years. Committing to more of that requires very compelling reasons and clear objectives.
But very few things are clear from our standpoint in Syria. For instance, if we intervene in Syria, then what? Do we stay and help try to lift up a third Middle Eastern government, leading to more lost Americans and more national debt? Do we inadvertently help Muslim extremists if we jump in with bombs? How do we deal with Russia, who backs the Assad regime? Could such a war escalate beyond the original conflict, with various countries jumping in, triggering wider death and damage? Ultimately, could our bombs really bring peace?
These are terribly complex issues. And I’m glad I’m not the one determining the answers.
But I’m watching all of this hoping for peace without our fingers ever hitting the triggers.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.