Impossible Choices

"Anything war can do, peace can do better." --Desmond Tutu
How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb? Just one, but the light bulb really has to want to change. --old joke
I woke up to it.
I was living in the Peace House on September 11, 2001. I awoke, as I did every morning in those days, to OPB. It was around 6 a.m. Pacific time, and the first plane must have just struck, because the story went something like this: "We're receiving reports that an airplane may have collided with one of the World Trade Center towers." It didn't take long for more detailed news to hit the airwaves, and then the second plane struck the second tower, I turned on my television, and watched the towers collapse.
Morning prayers were solemn, frightened; none of us knew what to make of it. In the days that followed, I found myself sinking into a deep melancholy. The world had just changed in a horrible way. One morning I was driving on Fremont, heading toward the bridge, and came across a car being tailgated by someone who was blasting his horn. I think the driver of the front car must have looked like an Arab.
I ran in my final marathon less than two weeks after September 11. I saw runners carrying flags, which I found moving, but the one who really caught my attention was wearing a sign that read, "Give the Hague a Chance."
I embraced that sentiment wholeheartedly, believing that the last thing we should do is what we actually wound up doing: invading two countries, overturning two governments, and launching two civil wars. The death toll from not giving the Hague a chance, and treating it as a matter of law enforcement rather than turning it into a war, numbers in the hundreds of thousands now, and it's still not over. Iraq is sinking back into chaos, and Afghanistan has never fully emerged from it.
Both those invasions were launched under the guise of just war theory, though neither truly fits the definition. Just war is a series of principles, developed in the age of chivalry, for using violence in a measured, intentional way to accomplish positive ends. For war to be just, the theory goes, there must be just cause: repelling or preventing an invasion, putting down a hegemonistic regime before it does anymore damage, coming to the aid of an ally who has been attacked. Casualties between armies should have a rough equity, and civilian casualties must be minimized.
It's the last standard that is all too often forgotten. The first Persian Gulf War resulted in an enormous imbalance of military casualties, something like 200 to 1 between Iraqi and coalition forces. For all the smart bombing technology, civilian casualties were high, especially in the aftermath as Iraq's ruined infrastructure and post-war rebellion led to thousands of deaths. Calling that war "just" was an oxymoron.
Calling the post-9/11 invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq is even more absurd. Taking out the strong men in both countries resulted in a decade-long bloodbath that is still being waged. American troops have again and again proven inadequate to taking the place of the deposed regimes, and the weak governments installed in their places have been incapable of getting these countries out of the woods and back on the straight and narrow.
It's been costly for Americans, too. Every Sunday at Parkrose UCC, the church where I play piano, there is a moment to honor fallen soldiers. For every name that is read, a penny is placed in a large bowl. Since I began playing there in early 2010, there have been only a handful of Sundays without any names. There are now thousands of pennies in that bowl, as far more soldiers have now died than civilians in the plane crashes of 9/11.
And now, twelve years later, knowing how vengeance turned a tragedy into a global disaster, and just as our troops are finally beginning to pull out of that disaster, we contemplate turning our weapons on another country in the middle East.
There is no question that what is happening in Syria is an abomination. Thousands are dying, and not just from chemical weapons. Conventional weapons have killed far more innocents than poison gas. The suffering will continue as long as the dictator is in power and the opposition is funded by foreign powers opposed to his rule. In the light of such mayhem, how can the United States of America stay clear? How can we turn our backs on such horror?
I don't have answers. This is not that kind of essay. What I have is a profound sense of just how impossible these decisions are for the elected leaders of our nation and its allies. There are no easy answers, and even the hard answers offer little in the way of hope.
Depose Assad, and Al Qaida takes his place. Punish him with bombs, and not only will civilians die, but he will cling all the more tightly to his power. Arm his opponents, and we actually arm the people who destroyed the World Trade Center, for the opposition is teeming with Al Aida operatives, funded by Iran, and should it take power, it will most likely regress Syria to an Islamist state with far fewer freedoms for women. At the same time, Assad is a monster who would rather kill thousands of his own people than give up power.
There are no easy answers here, just as there were none after 9/11, though I still believe the world would be a far better place if the advice of that fellow marathoner had been taken: give the Hague a chance. Turn it over to an international arbiter, pursue it as a matter of international law, and keep the military out of it; and for God's sake get off the obsession with Iraq, which didn't have anything to do with it in the first place.
Of course, that advice was not taken. Cooler heads were silenced, and hundreds of thousands of innocents paid the price.
Today, at least, the cooler heads seem to be dominating the discussion, both here and abroad. Nobody wants this to turn into an invasion. The problem, of course, is that the world is still generations away from an effective global government. Sovereignty is still too precious for the UN to be able to do anything, and NATO is understandably shying from involvement after what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan.
So our President, and our world, are stuck here, without any good options for ending the suffering. Except for this one, which is probably the hardest of all:
Take a look at the quote at the top of the page. Not the one about the light bulb; that comes later. Desmond Tutu's quote about peace doing things better than war greeted me daily when I lived at the Peace House, mounted in a small frame in the downstairs bathroom. Whenever I have told people I am a pacifist, and that I believe just war theory is full of bullet holes, they have come back with something along the lines of "What about Hitler?"
And it's a good point. What, indeed, about Hitler? One might also ask, along those lines, What about Stalin, Mao, Mussolini, Hirohito? What about all the military dictators throughout the ages who imposed their will on other nations through force of arms? Surely none of these megalomaniacs could have been countered without a show of military strength.
In fact, though, the answer lies in the first two names: though Stalin died in office, his regime eventually collapsed under its own weight without any frontal assault by military forces. The same is true of Mao, whose nation has evolved more and more away from its totalitarian roots. Neither Russia nor China is a model democracy, and both have committed acts of genocide on their own people that make Assad's gas attacks seem minuscule. Had there been a war, though, had the West launched a nuclear assault--for nothing else could have come close to countering the enormous military might of either nation--the death toll would have been in the tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions, not to mention the destruction of much of the Western World in the same way. Détente kept us from invading each other, and in the end, the normal movements of politics and social evolution changed both countries.
The pacifist realist answer to the perennial question of what to do with dictators is simple: engage them. Keep talking to them. Coax them toward liberalizing their regimes. Smooth the way for them to be brought down by their own people. It's a hard, hard thing to stay engaged when so many are dying horrible deaths, but the alternative is far worse. We know what happens when we send in the troops: many more die, and we're stuck with the mess. It's not easy getting a dictator to step down. These light bulbs don't want to change. But change they must, for the alternative for them is to be shattered by their opponents.
Change is coming to Syria. It will not come at the end of an American bayonet. Stay engaged, though, and it may come with the help of an American handshake.


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