Saturday, August 31, 2013

Sarin Gas, Syria, Belief, American Exceptionalism and Morality

Americans who died to free others

Jews who died when nobody cared

How do we know what happened?

Mad Dog has followed the putative Sarin gas attacks, said to be launched by the Syrian government with a sense of ambiguity to which Mad Dog is not accustomed.

Usually, Mad Dog, when in doubt, can simply ask himself not "What would Jesus do?" but "What does Rush Limbaugh, Rand Paul or Mitch McConnell say?" and then your path is clear.

In this case, Mad Dog finds himself in the position of having to puzzle out his own solution.

There seem to be two major considerations: 1. Can we believe the Syrian government used Sarin gas to kill its own people?   2. If we believe the answer is yes, what should we want the American government to do about it?  The classic two phase process of a criminal trial:  Is there reasonable doubt of the guilt? Then, if not,  what should be the penalty?

Lots of things come to mind about the question of guilt:  "The Newsroom" has just presented episodes in which the problems of establishing believable evidence were presented in bold relief. We all remember the weapons of mass destruction which never were in Iraq. In the age of images, cell phones and omnipresent video and surveillance, we have come to expect photographic evidence at the scene of every crime. When we see the photos, we believe. 

Of course, visual images may mislead, but seeing is believing, unless you are a Holocaust denier, unless you have a strong drive not to believe.

But let us say, for the moment, we believe Syria is guilty as charged. One of the key issues in most American courts is, "Do we have jurisdiction?"

Ah, that is the sticky wicket. 

Mad Dog is not sure when Hitler started gassing people in concentration camps. But let us suppose he began in 1940. Would the U.S. have had jurisdiction to intervene there?  The historical answer is no. It was only after the bombs fell at Pearl Harbor we got jurisdiction to intervene, and when we finally uncovered the bodies at all those camps throughout Germany and Poland, we loudly proclaimed: This is why we fight. We are the force of good against the forces of evil. 

But, suppose Hitler had never invaded France, never threatened England and  suppose Japan had raped Nanking,  but never dropped any bombs on us? Suppose Hitler had simply stayed home, methodically rounded up and gassed all the Jews, gypsies, dissenting Catholics and other "unwanteds"  would the United States have sat on its hands? Should the United States have stayed home and minded its own business, as many , including that great moral paragon, Charles Lindbergh, exhorted us to do?

Emotionally, Mad Dog is inclined to say, "No." 

What makes the United States different is we are the only nation on the planet which has ever tried to embody God's terrible swift sword.  (At least since the crusades--but who believes any of those were really about God?)  What other nation has fought a civil war of such savagery and completeness for the purpose of rescuing an underclass, for the purpose of saving those who could not save themselves?

Of course, there were plenty of union soldiers who had no interest in freeing slaves--maybe the majority at some point--but the animating reason for that war was to end slavery, to rescue those under the lash.  As Lincoln said, at the White House, when he was introduced to  Harriett Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, which provided the image of slavery imprinted in the minds of so many Northerners, "So, this is the little lady, who wrote the book, that started the great big war."  Lincoln repeated this acknowledgement in his Second Inaugural address.  Everyone knew that slavery was the cause of the war he said, we all just hoped it wouldn't come to war.

So sometimes, our sympathy for what happens to others pulls us into doing things we wished we didn't have to do.

But where does that moral imperative end?

Thousands were slaughtered in Rwanda and we did nothing. 

Why should we act in Syria?

Of course, had we not acted impetuously, without thinking enough, in Iraq and Afghanistan, we might have more energy for outrage now. 

But we have squandered our rage on countries where it had little positive effect. It's not like we captured Baghdad, instituted Reconstruction and transformed a nation. It's not like we have changed the culture in Afghanistan, not to mention Pakistan or any other stan.

Where has our outrage led us in the last hundred years?

In fact, the irony in all this is it was not moral outrage that moved us to action in embarking on the crusade of World War II. It was only after we had got into the war and won it we discovered we were such moral paragons, once we got the cameras into the concentration camps our armies had no idea were there.

Now we hear we cannot allow any nation to use lethal gas, or the restraint which kept even Germany, as it was reeling from the Russian invaders from the East and the Allies from the West, did not use.  But, in fact, the likelihood is, poison gas has not been used because it would have not been effective, not because desperate despots were afraid of the consequences of using poison gas. If gas were effective, well, the victors write the history.

So, if we attack Syria in some way because it used poison gas, deterrence is not an argument.

Moral outrage is an argument. But why are we more outraged about Syria than we were about a dozen other outrages over the past 70 years?

Maybe the mistake was saying we ought to be doing something about our outrage, other than expressing it. 

Having said all that, Mad Dog wishes his country had entered WWII because of the conviction Hitler was rounding up helpless people and gassing them in concentration camps. 

Trouble is, this country, when Hitler was foaming at the mouth, spewing invective at all the inferior races, this country had bottled up its own "colored" in ghettos, excluded them from everything from water fountains to bathrooms and even Eleanor Roosevelt, at least in her youth, thought Jews were money mad and sleazy.  We were no paragons of virtue, by 21st century standards, we were simply less horrific than Hitler and his gang.

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