Thursday, September 5, 2013

Syria -- Toward A Keener Vision of Reality

In the last 24 hours three very different takes on the ethics of action in Syria have crossed my desk, each of them very thoughtful, with much to consider.

As my own attempt to think about the issue, I've laid out the basic principles of each articles in a couple paragraphs each. Then at the bottom I put together the question that seems to me at the heart of it all.

Use it if it's helpful. Click away if it's not.

A Case For Action
In the New York Times, American writer Nicholas Kristof urges that military intervention is necessary.  To a large extent, his argument turns on what happens if we don't intervene -- more people die, and the already unstable region grows all that more unstable. He notes that while in some cases, such as Iraq, military intervention has only caused further damage, in others, such as Bosnia, Kosovo, Mali and Sierra Leone, such intervention saved lives.

Vehement Opposition to Action
In Rome, the Jesuit Superior General Father Adolfo Nicolas issued a fierce cry of opposition to any Western military action in an interview released Wednesday. The US and France, he says, have no right to act against a country in a way that will increase the suffering of its citizens. His criteria for action is encapsulated halfway through the article: "The means considered adequate to punish abuse", he argues, should not "harm the very Victims of the original abuse."

A striking part of Nicolas' comments is his sense that the world is furious at France and the US for threatening action. One of the great dangers of living in the United States is our relative isolation from the rest of the world. For as large and influential as our country is, it is also a massive echo chamber, our own varying perspectives bouncing around within it, without many foreign perspectives getting in. That someone outside the States, with such standing, would speak in such strong terms against American action should give us pause.

More Questions Than Answers
Lastly, Ivor Roberts writing in the Tablet asks many good questions, starting with the West's criteria for action. Why should the kind of weapon being used serve as proper criteria for a country to act against another? Why not the number who have been injured or killed (some 100,000 according to the UN), or some other fact?

Also, seeing the West's true goal as regime change, he wonders, regime change to what? There is no clear alternate body to take up leadership; opposition forces have indeed been fighting amongst themselves. The very idea of a unified Syria may in fact be an outdated Western construct. It was the West after World War I that drew borders around these very different clans and factions and called it a country.

Looking at the possibility of military intervention, on Sunday the Pope said that "Never has the use of violence brought peace in its wake. War begets war, violence begets violence."  Conversation, rather than confrontation, is the only means to achieve real change, real peace.

A Keener Vision of Reality
For me, what stands out from these articles is the need for a keener perception of reality. The tragedy before us goes without saying, but to acknowledge that is not to say we truly understand what we're seeing.

What is it that we're looking at? What are the facts and history of the situation before us? Are we sure we understand?

Along the same lines, are we aware of our own assumptions? For instance, if we say the verified use of chemical weapons justifies American intervention, how would we explain why? Does it seem self-evident? If so, beware -- if it were that obvious to us, it'd be obvious to everyone else, too.

In his great essay on 9/11 Writing in the Dust, Rowan Williams ponders why, when Jesus is persecuted for not condemning the adulterous woman in John 7, his first reaction is to write in the dust.  "What on earth is he doing?" Williams wonders.

Here's his take: "He hesitates. He does not draw a line, fix an interpretation, tell the woman who she is and what her fate should be. He allows a moment, a longish moment, in which people are given time to see themselves precisely..."

Writing in the dust, hesitation, he explains, can be a virtue. "It tries to hold that moment for a little longer, long enough for some of our demons to walk away."

Pedro Arrupe, a former superior general of the Society, once heard his men explain they were going to figure out an issue, then pray for confirmation.  Arrupe, a gentle, warm man came down hard on them. "NO." he said. "WE DO NOT PRAY AT THE END. WE PRAY AT THE BEGINNING."

Pray, hesitate, try to see -- it seems to me these are important goals for me these days.

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