Tuesday, September 03, 2013

In search of the least evil (A response to James Ford on Syria)

As introduced in the previous post, I would like to reply to James Ford's recent sermon and essay on the Syrian conflict, and the question of military strikes there by the United States. 

His piece is entitled "One Continuous Mistake," and I'll begin with an appreciation.  It's an honest testimony, a transparent talk about his personal struggle with a complex issue.  He writes:

Our issue, the real deal for us here in this community, is how to act in a sacred manner in this mess of relationships that are our lives. Faced with the complexities of war and peace and never having enough information, but being the eyes and ears of the world, and the mind and heart, too – what do I do? What do we do?

For me the reality is that it is impossible to be right. As the Zen tradition often notes, its [sic] all one continuous mistake.

As a matter of fact, I have no major disputes below with any statement he makes, even where my viewpoint is different.  For the response, I am going to submit a few things I think are simply missing from his analysis. 

In the following paragraph, he arrives at a stance:

Me, I’ve decided, for the moment, the least evil stance is to not oppose these called for attacks that might degrade the Syrian dictator’s forces, to demonstrate that poison gas must not be reintroduced into modern conflict. Out of respect for the Kurds. Out of respect for those others who’ve been victim to these horrors, to prevent the reintroduction of this terror. To finally, finally draw a line in that one small regard, at last.

It may well be true that we never know the entire truth, just as Mind can never contain the Absolute. 
With respect to the state, especially concerning war, some information is always kept from us citizens.  There may well be more information than one person can assimilate.  We must, however, continue to listen deeply and learn, and with respect to community and country we must also remember.  On this note, I would like to point out a few things that James's essay seems not to consider. 

The policy does not make sense as presented.  We are getting mixed messages about the policy.  Initially, the president promised military strikes that would not make a difference in the Syrian war or target Assad directly.  The only stated goals are vague:  what does "punishment" really mean here?  The policy leaves Assad in place to continue targeting non-combatants and the war to continue.  In the meantime, no matter how 'surgical' the strikes are designed to be, more non-combatants will die.   "Killing your people is unacceptable!  To punish you, we will kill some more of your people!" 

The policy, and James's defense, do not evaluate the obvious risks of retribution, both against Syria's people and against neighboring allies of the U.S. -- like Israel.  (In Israel, gas masks are being distributed to civilians who don't already have them, and the military is on full alert for possible retribution.)

Who pays the ultimate price as dictators and governments duke it out?  Can we really call that 'the least evil?'  Have we really decided that is the best human beings can or should do?  What does this really uphold? 

We do not uphold international law by flouting it.  Although Syria never signed the international convention banning chemical weapons, there is still a multilateral consensus that this is intolerable.  The red line has been drawn and it should be up to an international coalition, not one superpower, to police it.  There are obstacles to this, as everyone following this understands: there is, I think, a strong case here for the U.N. Security Council to debate reforming the use of veto, because what's happening here is that one superpower -- Russia being the main heavy in this case -- has the power to prevent the rest of the world from acting if somebody uses sarin gas on their people.  While the veto may yet have an important purpose on the Security Council, it is clearly being abused here.  This effectively breaks the United Nations and powers like the U.S. simply act on their own.  It escalates military conflict and the impulse to solve every problem with force. 

Even if our Congress votes to authorize military aggression against Syria, it is still a violation of international law to start bombing a country that is not attacking us.  In order to cover this problem, there is a lot of rhetoric about "defending America's interests" and America's "credibility."  We are, in fact, getting mixed messages:  is this about defending an international norm, or is it about maintaining our own reputation as a superpower and global cop?  

International laws need to be enforced by international coalitions and multilateral institutions.   When Barack Obama was a candidate, he upheld that point eloquently.  It was a selling point of his candidacy. 

Selective outrage.  Respect for the kurds?  Really?  The general public in the U.S. and its political class have been eloquent in their horror over Assad's attack on innocent people using sarin.  But before we presume any right to act unilaterally as the enforcer of 'international norms,' we must confront our own use of non-conventional weapons.  And this is not just in Vietnam with Agent Orange.  In our current wars in the middle east, we have used white phosphorous and depleted uranium.  These have lingering and non-discriminatory effects on human life.  There is nothing "surgical" about the use of such weapons.  Civilians suffer.  In birth defects in Iraq, we are seeing human beings suffer who were not even alive at the time of the conflict, due to our choice of weapons. 

Okay, fine, we've done bad things in the past, and even the very recent past.  Does that mean we can't change course and do something now?   Is this relevant, or is it just America-bashing?  Fair question.  Let's answer it.  

Let's be honest.  Is this about justice or dominance?  Since the U.S. is being selective in its outrage about these weapons, the search for truth compels us to ask what is really going on here.  Is the U.S. really just enforcing an international norm, or are we asserting the power to decide who is subject to international law and who isn't?  It's one thing to fight for justice, and quite another to fight for dominance.  

And I'll close with one more omission.

Other approaches.  When there is no really good option, and even doing nothing seems intolerable, what is the least evil we can do?  Can we actually do better than 'the least evil?" 

Depends on what we really want, don't you think?  Are we clear about that?

We cannot attain "the least evil" while agreeing to ignore some of the truth. We cannot attain "the least evil" without pushing back against deception and omission.  We have no duty to accept, or passively "not resist" the deeds of our elected representatives; and if we choose to let them do as they will, we don't get to pat ourselves on the back about choosing the 'least evil.'  If we are sincerely interested in the least evil, there are certain activities consistent with that: asking questions, applying critical thinking, speaking up. 

The least evil may, indeed, entail resistance.

But more importantly, it may involve something other than just dropping bombs.  It's a stereotypically American bias that the recourse seems to be limited to launching missiles.  What about pursuing veto reform at the Security Council to make truly international action possible even when Russia or China are being resistant?

And what about non-military options?  Since I've already written an awful lot today, I'll point you towards a good post about this written by Nathan Thompson over at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship blog.  

James's "one continuous mistake" reminds us that we human beings have limited capacities, limited knowledge, conditioned habits of constructing reality and behaving reactively based on deluded ideas about reality.  This means, inevitably, we struggle -- humbly or not -- with our conscience and our passions. 

There are also non-continuous mistakes.  We can wake up, so the Buddha's third noble truth declares.  We can stand up after falling down.  We can assemble more knowledge as completely as we are able, and take responsibility for our participation or resistance to evil. 

Through questioning and dialogue, may we support each other in our practice of awakening with all beings, and on the way may we uphold sincere practice and truthful speech. 


Kelly said...

I assume this post is lengthier and more detailed than your reply to James Ford. Yet, if your reply even just touched on the points you made here, I can't imagine why he would have suppressed it. It's interesting, well thought out, and certainly not confrontational.

Algernon said...

LOL. Oh yes, this is definitely longer!

Karen said...

Well said. It is indeed a difficult time. And decisions are difficult. If only words were more important than weapons :\