No, Syria isn't Auschwitz.
Nothing is ever exactly something else. But that old horror may help us in trying to decide, each of us in our own minds: Should we attack Syria's dreadful leader for having used poison gas in defiance of international law and human decency?
The Jews of America, who were just beginning to understand how to make a political case for themselves, begged FDR to bomb the railroads leading into the death camps. They even begged him to bomb the death camps themselves rather than let the Nazis continue relentlessly killing the Jews in the gas chambers. Let us remember that at that point, even as Germany was clearly losing the war and was running out of supplies, even running out of coal to run the trains needed in its war effort, nevertheless the pace of extermination continued. Nothing else tells us as much about the Nazis as does that fact.
FDR refused the request. I don't know why. If I have ever found out, I have put it from my mind because there can be no satisfactory answer. Why not give mercy? What strategic or tactical reason could have stopped FDR?
Is that what we are confronted with now? Arguments against mercy?
Indeed it's argued that nothing we do now can really deter Assad. That anything we do may cause repercussions. That lots of people have already died. That more will die anyway. That we shouldn't get involved in these things. That it's not our job to take care of the world.
This last argument annoys me. It is in fact our job to take care of the world. We keep claiming to be the leader of the world. Well, folks, being a leader means taking care of the people. We have been doing it steadily for just over 100 years, beginning with Teddy Roosevelt stepping in to mediate the Japanese-Russian war and getting a Nobel Peace Prize for it. Next we foot-dragged but finally went into WWI, the last time gas was used in a big way in a war. We ended that dreadful war of mindless attrition. Then we won WWII and saved the world. Then we kept millions of South Koreans from the agony of Communist dictatorship. And one way or another we did the same for the people of Greece and other countries as the Cold War wound its tortuous way through the decades. God forgive us, we meant to do the same for the Vietnamese people but misread that situation from beginning to end. We have often bumbled and stumbled badly.
But we are not a bad people. We are not a warmongering, blood-thirsty people. Iraq was, of course, a bad mistake based on big lies. I never believed the Bush people and the stuff about nuclear and chemical weapons. Instead I kept hearing the echo of Karl Rove telling Bush he needed a war so he could win the 2004 election. (This was actually published early on and promptly forgotten.)
But if we step aside on the issue of chemical weapons because Bush screwed up horribly in going into Iraq, then we have doubled the dire effect of his Iraq mistake. We have crippled ourselves from being who we are. If there are to be standards of decent human behavior, there has to be someone willing to stand up for those standards. There has to be someone willing to bomb railroads that lead to death camps. Or even bomb the death camps.
We organized and hosted the beginnings of the United Nations, based on the premise that war is wrong and that the world should outlaw it as illegal. That invading other countries is wrong. These were new ideas. Before the UN met for the first time in San Francisco, going to war was the normal business of states. I know. I remember those times.
It was the USA which led the way into the new era, the new consciousness. The era we are now in, when war is so appalling that we hesitate to even bomb a man who slaughters his own people with poison gas. Who kills children and babies and makes no attempt even to hide this act in a camp somewhere.
Are we who created the era of anti-war thus to cripple ourselves from doing our duty to stop the worst outrages of someone else's war?
And can we say that this is not our duty when we have boasted and strutted about being a world leader for a century?
We did nothing for too long about the people of Sarajevo being shot down in their own streets just trying to get to a store for bread. (Remember the woman distance runner who so wanted to get to the Olympics that she dodged bullets just to keep up her running?) We did nothing at all for the half million being slaughtered in Rwanda, and we hang our heads in shame to this day.
How much is the life of one more Syrian baby worth? Is it worth taking a chance and answering a call for mercy?
From one whose father's entire family died in the Nazi camps, the answer can only be that this time we must do our duty and try to save the helpless. For me, this is not going to war. It's going to the rescue.
There's a very big difference. I hope you see it too.