Syria—or the “Syria” we’re presently trying to understand—poses an age-old problem: How do we determine what happens over the horizon?
Analysis, of course. After weighing the facts. Drawing reasonable conclusions. Well, hold on a moment.
Whence come those facts? Mostly from the media. On rare occasions, from visiting the place in question ourselves, talking to people there. But from them we receive shards, fragments of data. Talking to another person we are already getting mediated news. As for the media themselves, they are not telescopes: they are filters. Observations have already been selected and narratized by the time they reach us. Stories, already assembled, that we need but read and absorb, and see the world as we are bid.
No, “bid” is too strong. It smacks of conspiracy and cabals. There is agency behind it. Put it another way, then: we are invited to see the world as it is constructed in story and myth by people across the horizon. Even the most honest of them, witnessing or encountering witnesses to brute events, are seeing them through a web of their own preconceptions, and arranging what they see to make sense of them. There is not, nor can there ever be, a “true” recounting of those events. The various tales invite themselves in to our own web of preconceptions, the world that we ourselves construct.
And so, Syria. A poison gas attack. A missile strike on an airfield. The social media, and the mainstream and less-than-mainstream media, immediately lit up—but did not enlighten. I read deep into the evening. Almost everyone sounded delusional. Drums were beaten mechanically, as though by robots. Opposition arose, like nervous twitches in nearly lifeless bodies. Veils were torn away, and replaced with others.
“About time!” “It’s about oil!” “US hypocrisy—it condemned 100,000s of thousands of Iraqi kids to death.” “Let’s follow up with boots on the ground! Think of the babies!” “Trump has shares in Tomahawk!” “Kids are dying every day in Yemen—Trump and Trudeau are OK with that!” “The rebels did it—false flag operation!” “War by America is always a disaster!”
I even agree with some of that. Libya and Iraq were left in ruins by the US. Yemen is a continuing human tragedy on a major scale—one which Canada may well have a hand in, and certainly the US does, supporting one of the most monstrous regimes in the region (Saudi Arabia). The US hypocrisy over Syria is, indeed, stifling, overwhelming, searing—like sarin gas. Asked about the up to half a million Iraqi kids who died thanks to sanctions, then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said, “We think the price was worth it.” Saudi savagery in Yemen knows no bounds, and children are dying at a rate of about one every ten minutes: not a peep out of the US or Canadian governments about that.
A single death—or even a few dozen—is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.
I didn’t see real discussion after the missiles flew: I saw unconscious reflexes playing against other reflexes. It was as though everyone was sleepwalking through their lines. And in the background, people choking to death. Missiles exploding against the night sky.
Finger-pointing: Assad did it. No, say his backers, by the remorseless logic of cui bono he couldn’t have. The problem is, the counter-narrative is even less believable. Syria is convulsed in agony. 400,000 dead in the past six years. 6.6 million internally displaced persons. Five million refugees. Population of Syria before the war was 22 million. Now, it’s 16.2 million.
All this so al-Assad and his torture regime could cling to power.
But Trump, being the Ubu Roi that he is, cannot possibly be right about anything, including this pinprick missile attack, about which both the Russians and the Syrians appear to have been forewarned. Much of the Left says so, anyway, without firing a synapse. So does the alt-right, but there you go. Strange bedfellows. And meanwhile Hillary Clinton is calling for a wider incursion. Our Prime Minister, whose Minister of Foreign Affairs was urging caution a scant few days ago, has gone all in for Trump. Two sides, one bed. Snoring, tossing and turning, talking in their sleep.
No Ishmael I, rising above the fray with a fully awake narrator’s all-seeing eye. I’m in the web as well: how could it be otherwise? So I don’t want to offer yet another highly speculative account. My opinions on what happened and why it happened are irrelevant. The missile attack on Syria could have had any number of motives: it was no doubt overdetermined. But perhaps it might serve as a wake-up call to the world, made suddenly aware of the lethal possibilities that lie ahead.
The combination of an unstable US President and an unpredictable, bloodthirsty dictator in Syria should worry everyone, including the cold calculating machine inhabiting the Kremlin. It’s not a matter of whom to blame, or why or how this all happened. There is now new impetus and good reason to find a constructive way out of the Syrian quagmire. If that missile strike was only a shot across the bow, or even just a theatrical exercise by Trump to impress the rubes—and not the opening salvo of yet another bloody American adventure—some good may come of it.