This piece has languished in my drafts folder for… a long time, all things considered, but it remains something I wanted to say, and given that we’re in the middle of the primaries and Hillary Clinton will almost certainly bring this topic up at some point, I figure this is as good a time as any.
Specifically, the Obama administration’s effort to remove chemical weapons from the Syrian arsenal. Which isn’t per se a bad thing, mind, but my issue with it remains the sheer blinding hypocrisy that lies at the heart of it.
Here’s the thing: Chemical weapons are horrifying. They kill indiscriminately, often in an excruciating fashion.
The problem is that the same can be said for nearly any weapon, depending on how it’s wielded. Chemical weapons are a fairly nasty example of human ingenuity, but they’re also difficult and dangerous to employ in many circumstances.
As such, the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal means next to nothing in the long run. It’s an act of comparable significance to the dissolution of the Backstreet Boys.
It’s as if we pulled the Nazis aside and got them to agree not to use poison gas to murder Jews. Even if they follow through on the promise it means nothing, because they’re still killing Jews. Changing the method does nothing to alter the outcome.
So yes, I had a bit of an issue with calling the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons a foreign policy win.
In the West we have this bizarre fascination with “weapons of mass destruction”, as though making something easy somehow makes it worse, the strange thought that genocide is more horrible when it’s accomplished with the push of a button rather than the swing of a machete.
Death is death. If you execute someone through painless lethal injection, they are no less dead than if you feed them foot first into a wood chipper, and while the manner of their passing matters to them, it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference to anyone else.
You only die once, after all.
So dictating that people will have to die in one horrible fashion as opposed to another horrible fashion doesn’t do a whole lot for me. I can understand the desire to keep WMDs out of the hands of rogue elements like terrorists and fanatics. But keeping them out of the hands of the state is almost irrelevant.
The state doesn’t need them. Hell, the “rogue elements” don’t need them if you can get enough militants in one place in a region savaged by war. ISIS isn’t running around bemoaning their lack of chemical weapons because it’s preventing them from killing off the people they want dead in their own territory.
So let’s dispense with the bullshit.
We, and I say this as the vast collective we, the West as a whole, for whom I will now speak despite the fact I am in no way qualified to do so, do not care about Syrians gassing other Syrians.
We don’t. You might, I do, but we do not.
We care about the possibility that those weapons will be misplaced or misused and find themselves carted into a busy street in some Western metropolis where they could be wielded against us.
The rest of it, the rationalizations, the justifications, the rhetoric surrounding the horrors of weapons of mass destruction? Just our way of cloaking the truth, of refusing to admit to ourselves that our lives matter more to us than the lives of people from another country, another culture, in another part of the world far removed from our own, killing each other by the thousands.
We’ll condemn the war, of course, and we always wring our hands and lament the genocides that inevitably result when long-suppressed tensions get brought to the surface and exacerbated by hardship and struggle. But our first concern is our own safety, and anything else is a distant, distant second.
Which isn’t wrong. Getting involved in a civil war is an enormously costly enterprise, beyond the simple expedient of picking a side and backing them to the hilt. That means weapons, equipment, air support, boots on the ground and caskets carried home, and nobody wants to do that in a country where at best, the people who take over will just hate us a bit less than the ones we helped exterminate.
So we make statements, and issue condemnations, and occasionally we even go so far as to offer some material and possibly even air support to one side or another, and we skirt our way around the fact that we don’t want to get involved, for good reason.
But don’t lie to yourself. Don’t pretend that we, as a culture, really care that much about what happens to people in any given war-torn hellhole, that we rail against the existence of chemical weapons because we’re just that damned noble.
Because we’re not.