Routinizing evil in Syria

Fawaz Turki
Fawaz Turki
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"I will tell you that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me, a big impact," President Trump told reporters in the White House Rose Garden, describing the chemical weapons attack in Idlb Province last Tuesday that killed close to a 100 people, many of them children. "My attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much. You're now talking about a whole different level."

He later reminded us that Barack Obama drew, then failed in 2013 to enforce, a "red line" over the use of chemical weapons by Damascus. "President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a red line against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing." It may have been a gratuitous swipe at the former chief executive, but Donald Trump was right.

Asked if the Idlib attack crossed a similar red line, he replied: "It crossed a lot of red lines for me. When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, little babies, with a chemical gas that is so lethal -- that crosses many, many lines." He even went further, describing the horrors as an "affront to humanity."

By Friday, the president had revealed what his administration planned to do in order to punish the blood-soaked regime for its latest atrocity.

Truth be told, those of us who have followed the conflict in Syria, and have gotten used to Washington's prevarications over the last six years, had no illusions, up till then, that an American president, like a knight in shining armor, would come to the rescue. The US, lets face it, is a big power, and like all big powers in history, from ancient Egypt to ancient Greece, and from imperial Rome to colonial Britain, does not conduct a foreign policy driven by a politico-moral impulse. A big power's global interests come first, and realpolitik here is the name of the game. Compassion for the suffering of a little, helpless people is ancillary to that policy.

Yet. Yet, the reaction to the horrific images from Idlib has been so visceral, and outrage on the Hill so widespread by both leading Republican and Democratic legislators, that the president left his America First policy by the wayside and opted for the military option, which included hitting Syrian airfields to ground Assad's air force, thought it did not include hitting the Ministry of Defense in Damascus as experts have been expecting such action.

The suffering in Syria, folks, has been unspeakable. And the gruesome imagery of it, as Idlib would attest, is beyond all rational understanding.. Children in spasms, foaming at the mouth? Children gasping for breath? Children writhing with pain as rescue teams attempt to wash chemical agents from their bodies? Then -- and let this one image sink in, let it, as it were, enter one's essential repertoire of consciousness where one could reflect on its incomprehensible cruelty -- the regime launched attacks, according to sundry news reports, on one of the clinics where victims were being treated.

Anthropologists tell us that just as we are raised by our families to embrace certain moral values, we are socialized as adults by a demented community -- say that of Nazi Germany -- in routines that produce evil as normal work.

Fawaz Turki

The Idlib chemical attack, it will be recalled, was similar in its savagery to the one launched by the regime on rebel held territory outside Damascus in August 2013, where a UN investigation concluded that the military's ground-to-ground rockets delivered the nerve gas agent that killed more than 1,000 people there.

Ordered to kill

Who are these people -- and lets call them that for the time being -- who are propping up the Assad regime and doing that regime's bidding? How did they get from there to here? What are the forces that, in the evolution of culture, destroy what is of man in man and restore in him what is of beast?

Anthropologists tell us that just as we are raised by our families to embrace certain moral values, we are socialized as adults by a demented community -- say that of Nazi Germany -- in routines that produce evil as normal work. People are ordered to kill and they come to embrace the spirit of the order, not just the letter of the order. When Adolf Eichman, for example, was ordered to establish extermination camps in the summer of 1941, we are told by Hanna Arendt in her 1964 boo, The Banality of Evil, he did not reflect on the scale or consequence of what he was ordered to do. Such broad issues were beyond his purview. At least that's what he told the court that tried him as a war criminal.

So it is with those, fighting on behalf of the Syrian regime, who drop poison gas on children, commit mass executions, inflict torture on suspects in the regime's crowded prisons, and employ the ancient tactic of besiege-and-starve. Assad's crimes, in short, go beyond the limits of conscience -- and that is precisely what constitutes their monstrous nature. And how do you contextualize such evil?

You don't. Evil is so banal, as Arendt reminded us, in its villainy, its malice, its depravity, that you contextualize it only through its dialectical opposite, where good in the end should prevail and evil should be defeated. Defeating the regime in Damascus should be -- and no other word will do here -- the moral responsibility of the international community, even our own moral responsibility as individuals, for we are all complicit in that which leaves us indifferent.

Fawaz Turki is a Palestinian-American journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington, DC.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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