Saturday, September 21, 2013

Thoughts on Vista Bridge: A Look at Life in a City of Bridges

        A bridge is a place of movement and flux. It is never designed to be destination unto itself – an endpoint to be reached – but rather as a place to be passed. A place of transition. And there are many different types of bridges. Some are big, some are small; some are high, some are low. Some are aesthetically imposing – outstanding monuments to human ingenuity – and others are eyesores. A humble log may suit the role, but then again an entire canyon’s worth of steel may be required. But however spare or elaborate, to be a bridge is to be defined by becoming; it is to be known by where one is coming from and where one is going to. 

        Bridges define the cityscape of Portland, Oregon. The residents are proud of their city’s many bridges, some referring to the city as Bridgetown. In a way, each bridge is a work of chaos. Whether jutting out of a steep promontory or precariously spanning the river, they seem unnaturally fixed, as if irreverently placed by a careless child. Indeed, the order embodied in the city’s geometric street grid makes for a series of interesting contrasts when juxtaposed to the bridges’ diagonal spans and zigzagging lines. Their flamboyance seems to suspend all conceptions of order and hierarchy, even though, in reality, they are an important part of this great order – perhaps its boldest achievement. 

        In truth, their very number hints towards their place in this greater order. Thus the Burnside Bridge connects the east side of the river to the heart of downtown; moving eastward along the Hawthorne Bridge, one finds themselves in the glitzier of the city’s neighborhoods. And traversing the river by way of the St. John’s Bridge, the traveler is overcome with sense of awe. The bridge’s cathedral-like spans seem to capture the essence of the city, in all its profane grandeur. And below all of these bridges lies the Willamette River, a natural bridge in its own right, which connects with the Columbia River before disgorging its heavy load into the great Pacific expanse. 

        The greatest contradiction that these bridges embody, however, is the tension between eternity and temporality. Built of steel and rock, they are made to last even though their function is of the most transient kind. After all, they are by their very nature a point of transition; a moment in time, a place to be passed, a checkmark on a map. Yet this point of transition is of immense importance: for unless one completes the crossing they will not be able to continue the journey. It is through this truth that the bridge draws its significance. The endpoint cannot be reached unless the bridge is first crossed. So while the traveler may be in the process of reaching or becoming an endpoint, the bridge is of no less consequence than the destination desired. Without passing the bridge, reaching or becoming thus far, the traveler cannot expect to reach or become the endpoint that the bridge eventually incarnates. To not cross the bridge is to throw the journey’s entire trajectory off course.  

        Lately there has been a lot of activity on Vista Bridge. Large and long, with a span of 76 meters, the bridge is formidably built, though it lacks any trace of showy adornment. Indeed perhaps its most distinctive trait is the way in which it complements the surrounding landscape. While at one time its muscular construction was undoubtedly a point of pride amongst residents, now it competes for supremacy with the trees that frame its course. For truth be told, Vista Bridge is an old bridge – a much traveled and “historic” part of the Goose Hollow neighborhood, but one whose age is beginning to show. Wizened by exposure to wind, heat and – most of all – Portland’s infamous rain, its façade has faded and superficial cracks line its concrete path, like the wrinkles of a well-traveled sailor. 

        It might then seem odd that Vista Bridge has been the subject of so much attention and controversy as of late. But this apparently unassuming bridge has a bad reputation. Almost since its opening in 1926, the bridge has been a favorite spot for those attempting to commit suicide, a fact that has earned it the nickname, the “Suicide Bridge”. From 2004-2011, 13 people jumped to their deaths from Vista Bridge. This August the most recent suicide occurred while a suicide prevention volunteer – regular patrols are carried out by trained volunteers – was attempting to talk the victim out of jumping. In fact, the problem has escalated to the point where the city has erected a temporary barrier on the bridge until a permanent barrier can be installed. 

        Thus the bridge is not simply a bridge, but something more. Or perhaps we have yet to understand what a bridge is. For Vista Bridge confronts us with uncomfortable questions, unanswered questions, about what it means to live in Portland. What it means to be human in a city of bridges; a world of redundant tension and intolerable convention, punctuated by yet another bridge. It is impossible for us to get into the minds of those who jumped before they took the fall, but I think it is a task worth trying – to spend a little time patrolling the bridge. 

        Why do desperate people choose the bridge? There are many ways to die – especially when one gets to choose – so why here? But to understand a bridge once must first understand its city. A city, like a bridge, is a special place. It is a manmade phenomenon, constructed by human design rather than the blueprints of nature. Indeed the city is forever at odds with the natural order, even the needs of the human architects themselves: while it attracts great masses of people, it also prevents the most elementary of human relations. In the city one learns that it is possible to be alone in a crowd; to be surrounded by thousands and be known to none. The bonds of community are split by concrete partitions, dead-end jobs, walls of empty rooms and the combustible institution of the nuclear family – a combination ripe to explode. It is a sinkhole for dreams; a place where one goes to make it big and loses their sense of humanity in the process. For many others, it is a place of necessity: they were born into this concrete cell, and here they will stay. There is nowhere else to go. 

        As the prospect for finding meaning in the city dims, the human existent becomes more frantic. They may have started out well but somehow got lost along the way. Everything seems meaningless. Within the city one’s identity is subsumed in its crowds and conventions, even as the nameless existent feels sharply alienated from both. Thus one comes to feel as if they are both everywhere and nowhere at the same time. And this alienation comes to be the most common and resonant feeling – the only feeling, in fact, which reminds them that they are alive. Getting their kicks means freeing themselves from the pain of alienation: to relax is to become numb, to lose all sense of one’s senses. The bottle or pills will do the trick. Of course, similar alienation can arise from all manner of conditions – including the deep emptiness of the countryside or the manufactured monotony of the suburb – but the city evokes it in terms with the cruelest poignance. Here, you are nothing. 

         Maybe this is why people choose the bridge (or a tower, for that matter). Lost in the stranglehold of the city, with its stern streets and faceless crowds, they look for a place to breathe, a place to stand and be known – to exist. The bridge provides such an outlet, as it seems to leave the conventionality of the city in order to rise above it. Again, the bridge embodies contradictions: it is a focal point of city life despite the fact that it represents transience, being by nature a place to be passed. 

        So they go to the bridge, to rise above the sterile chaos of the city, to see with clarity and, above all, to be known. On top of the bridge they launch one last salvo for life, a SOS signal by way of their very presence on that precarious peak. It is as if they are shouting “I am! Can you see me?” But on the bridge they once more come face to face with their smallness, their finitude: the city lies before them unmoved, once more registering their insignificance. Before this panorama of glazed eyes and steel facades, their alienation feels complete. 

        They are overwhelmed. Above all they are alone and they feel it. Deeply. In a desperate attempt to find resolution – an endpoint, no more bridges and run-arounds – they decide to jump. In doing so, they will transcend their loneliness as well as the great weight of their hollow existence. It is only by killing themselves in this most public of places that they will become known, validated – they will begin to exist, even if just in someone’s memory. Like Alain Leroy from The Fire Within, they will inscribe their existence on the life of another by leaving an “indelible mark” on their memory. Their existence will finally be felt, if not by their presence then by their absence. True, there may be no witnesses but there will always be someone who finds the body. And they will remember. At the very least, they will not be able to forget. 

        Jumping from the bridge, they suddenly free themselves from the city – in which they were alienated but subsumed – before asserting their identity – their existence – on the pavement. As they hit the pavement they reenter the world, this time as a broken but complete being, one whose existence has been realized precisely because it cannot be forgotten. 

        Vista Bridge is a sad place, a place where those on the interstices of society choose to position themselves for final act. But perhaps what makes Vista Bridge a place of special tragedy is the fact that these people, by and large, are not unique to society; the fact that there is no lack of such people anywhere, those looking for meaning, validation, friendship. To truly exist. Is this what they saw as they looked over the edge towards the city: a million terrified faces just like their own? What a terrible sight to behold. One is reminded of the words of Bob Dylan, that “there are many here among us, who feel that life is but a joke.” The song is, of course, “All Along the Watchtower,” an epic song about a landmark of similar significance. 

        One of the few powers that a person is granted is the choice to live, though this is a decidedly uncertain and all too often compromised freedom.  Yet, all the same, we begin with this fact: the discovery that we are alive. To claim that one is not free by the fact of their unchosen, and perhaps unwanted, existence is to delude one’s self. One can only begin to be free or enslaved after the realization of their existence: life does not by itself denote enslavement, as one cannot claim to be free and never have existed. Those who never were or who are dead are not free; by way of their nonexistence they simply are not. One must be before one can be free or unfree.

        The problem, then, arises from living in a world which for many people does not appear to be worth living in whether one is free or unfree. And the question posed, then, is this: how does one create a world in which bridges actually lead somewhere, to places worth going to; places worth living in? This is not an easy question, but it is one worth pursuing:

        To spend some time patrolling the bridge.  


Friday, September 13, 2013

Child Sacrifice in America: A Look at Moloch and the Gods of War

        In the Bible the Israelites are forbidden from worshiping Moloch, a local god who is associated with fire and child sacrifice. Today the name Moloch has become synonymous with unrequited savagery, conjuring up images of unsated bloodlust and the inexplicable cruelty. The idea of child sacrifice – one of the few practices that Moloch worship is remembered by – appears not only unconscionable but simply incomprehensible. It arouses a strong visceral reaction: its practitioners seem to have transgressed the very bounds of humanity, becoming something less than human in the process. 

        Unable to understand, no less relate to such people, they are cast outside of the cognitive boundaries within which we attempt to make sense of the world. Instead they become an inscrutable other, embodying all that we – those who are civilized – are not. They are projections, symbols of everything we do not understand, or, more accurately, everything that we refuse to believe. And as all that we revile is resurrected in their image, we leave out all that is essential and good for ourselves. It is as if we are standing atop a great precipice, adorning white robes, while watching the begrimed heathens cast their children into the flames below, the laughing maw of Moloch. 

        Though it is easy to reduce such people to brutish caricatures, we do so at their own peril. For contrary to popular interpretations, the followers of Moloch were not unusually cruel, unusually depraved, or even unusual. Upon deeper examination, one finds that they were human-beings who were not all that different from anyone else. Yes, child sacrifice is an inherently cruel act. But it is just as common today as it was back then – if not far more pervasive and even more senseless.

         Followers of Moloch, like so many practitioners of child sacrifice, likely believed that these sacrifices were necessary for propitiating Moloch and, consequently, saving their society from the wrath of this temperamental deity. In other words, child sacrifice was not carried out because these people were simply inclined towards violence, but rather, out of a sense of social responsibility. How else, after all, were they to guard against the very real specters of blight, disease and natural disaster? With this civic burden weighing heavily upon their hearts, mothers gave up their children as protection against these disorders and other related calamities for the collective good. So was child sacrifice an act of bloodlust or self-denial, cruelty or sacrifice, bestiality or despair? 

        The answer to each of these questions is not “either-or,” but rather, “yes.” Bizarre as it may sound, there are elements of truth to all of these charges. Certainly these sacrifices were cruel – as any act of unnecessary violence is cruel – but within the logic of sacrifice that grounded these rituals were probably purer motives than a fascination with suffering. As the parent gave up their child they were undoubtedly tormented by conflicted feelings: a parent’s natural love for their child and a sense of one’s civic duty. For as other biblical stories make clear, whether in the lives of Abraham and Isaac or Mary and Jesus, to give up one’s child is the ultimate sacrifice. 

        Today parents are asked to make a similar sacrifice to ensure the protection of society. For over one decade, parents have been asked to cast their children into the flames of war, an inherently destructive enterprise that always leaves a scar. Just as mothers and fathers of biblical Palestine gave up their children to appease Moloch, now parents are being asked to place them on the altar of liberty in order to appease the gods of war. It is their patriotic duty – indeed, the paramount act of national “sacrifice”. No, they do not know how casting them into a war machine that every day grows bigger, more debauched with dollars, and more appetitive, will make the nation secure. But they are told to have faith. Remember, as Bush II assured the public, that this is a just “crusade”. 

        Through divination violence and murder, the two essential ingredients of war, will somehow – miraculously – establish lasting peace and harmony. If violence fails then the conjurers may call for small changes, always in quantity but never in kind. If “shock and awe” does not do the trick then the high priests will add more of the same to the bubbling cauldron: cruise missiles in place of tanks, drones in place of planes, and dazzling white phosphorous for the pièce de résistance

        All of the nation’s trust is placed in the hands of these diviners, masters of the dark arts who are selected by fate through an obscure ritual called the Electoral College. Within their great white temples they contemplate the mysteries of the universe and devise new plans by which to ensure that society’s delicate ecology is kept in balance. With alchemy they control the spirits that cause inflation; with talk of “shared sacrifice” they prostate themselves before the specter of national debt. Dividends, assets and financial-based wealth must not be taxed – and anyone who suggests otherwise must be stoned – for they are the lifeblood, indeed, the very sinews, of the sacred “movers” whose guidance the nation requires. 

        But the priests always feel the weight of their sublime task. To lighten the load, part of their work is delegated to series of dark orders – the NSA, CIA and FBI – whose ubiquitous eyes and ears make up the foundation of their power. Through their mastery of the dark arts all speech is instantly received and recorded in their secret annals. And to legitimate this power a national mythos is weaved together, as by Penelope’s loom, drawing deeply from the best of America’s – only slightly soiled – heritage. Hence on the airwaves one hears siren songs about “American exceptionalism,” while the history textbooks, i.e., the national bibles, eulogize the magnanimity of America in war. Yes, during WWII we firebombed virtually every major city in Japan and dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese, but this was resolutely a “good war,” one in which we defeated “fascism abroad.” As for fascism at home, such as the lynching of blacks and Jews in the same period, not a word is mentioned. 

        In short, America is a very religious society; child sacrifice is no stranger here. A soldier may not be able to drink because of their developing – growing – mind, but they sure are old enough to die. As Kurt Vonnegut reminded the world in Slaughterhouse-Five, every war is a “Children’s Crusade”. 

        But one should not be indiscriminate in their judgments, since there are real differences between giving one’s child to Moloch and sending another to battle in Baghdad. When Moloch worshipers engaged in child sacrifice they were attempting to address problems that were as real as they were familiar: crop blight, pestilence and disease. To be sure, blood sacrifice did not address the root cause of these problems, but that is because their causes were unknown. Lacking knowledge of modern germ theory or meteorology, they logically came to believe that some greater being was at work – a wrathful god. 

        By contrast, the problems that Americans are attempting to solve through child sacrifice are largely non-existent or of their own making. They are artificial problems; imagined problems. In order to sustain an overgrown military-industrial complex, threats are not only imagined but manufactured. The threat of fascism transmogrifies into the threat of communism, before turning into the latest fashionable fear: terrorism. And if the problems are imagined, then their imagined solutions are even more morbid: a Big Brother-style intelligence apparatus; perpetual drone warfare; a dungeon with the pet-name GTMO; and casting military “personnel” – human-beings – into the fiery maw of Mars, the god of war. But this is what makes America “exceptional”; for it is precisely America’s ability to act upon these unfounded fears with impunity that makes America different. 

        It was previously noted that the choice of parents who commit child sacrifice generally embodies a complex set of motives, both good and evil. A present-day example will put this in more distinct terms. During the Vietnam War, some parents argued that “quitting” the war was sacrilegious since it meant that their deceased children’s sacrifices were made “in vain”.  This argument was consciously inflated by Richard Nixon, who used it as a strategy to perpetuate the war so that his own reputation would not be blemished by the “fall” of Vietnam – to its own people – on his watch. Similar arguments have been made during the most recent of America’s forays, most notably in Iraq and Afghanistan, for the purpose of continuing these exercises in violent futility. 

        Of all the confused logic used to justify child sacrifice, this may be the worst. First, this line of thought is abhorrent because it is premised on the assumption that the dead are more important than the living. Put another way, the dead supposedly deserve more consideration than the needs of those who are alive – even their lives. The real needs and humanity of existing beings is thus sacrificed to appease the imagined spirits of deceased, i.e., nonexistent and imagined, beings. 

        Moreover, the legacy of the dead is spat upon since their memory and identity is used to construct a modern-day Moloch, implicitly making the deceased out to be wrathful gods whose bloodlust can only be assuaged through the loss of more life. Each loss augments the power of this false idol, as the memory and identity of the newly deceased is assimilated into the identity of the corporate Moloch. And the logic is circular: the deity’s appetite grows in proportion to the increasing number of dead, becoming even more greedy and capricious. When the futility of war is finally understood, the deity clamors all the more for war; for as deaths increase its demand for the war’s perpetuation logically increases proportionally. 

        Is this why sacrifices to the biblical Moloch continued? Did the parents of the dead, after the twilight of their faith passed, become bitter and spiteful? Did they have second thoughts that required the validation of their sacrifice, or, perhaps, felt the perverse compulsion to drag others into the same sin by continuing the ritual? It is a well-known fact that criminal groups often feel a compulsive need to initiate others into their way of life; their crimes. Doing so temporarily validates their lifestyle, diffusing guilt and reinforcing a sense of solidarity that makes living possible within a miasma of despair.

        Whatever the case, our “civilized” society has chosen to prolong the war ritual. And many parents encourage it. There remains one important distinction, however, between the sacrifices made to Moloch and those made on America’s altar of liberty. Today not only do parents choose to send their children to their deaths, but they damn other human-beings to an unnatural death too – people whom their idol is arraigned against. Americans will likely mourn their lost children (and rightly so) for a long time. However, it is hardly likely that they will also be shedding tears for the murdered Iraqis and Afghans who died senselessly – murdered by their own sons and daughters. 

        Is this what war is? A never-ending cycle of murder: parents sacrificing children, children murdering innocent people, parents demanding vengeance – through the blood of Americans and others – all to satisfy the bloodlust of a Moloch that they imagine in order to hold onto a part of their dead child?

        A low murmur wends its way through the temple of the high priests, where a small fire illumes their silhouettes against the wall. As the fire’s tongues lick the darkness, the priests' shadows dance across the polished granite, growing bigger and bigger. On the opposite bank of the river, a group of men collect wood for the fire. Their work is slow and rhythmic, the saws moving back and forth like a pendulum swung out of place. Another tree falls and the men begin to cut it into smaller pieces, each moving with measured effort. They have done this before. 

        Will the fire eventually consume the shadows? Will it someday expose things as they really are? Or will one day, in a moment of special recklessness, the fire grow out of control and consume it all? Will we even have a chance to know?


Monday, September 2, 2013

The Rape of Humanity: Honest Thoughts about the U.S. and Syria

Mirror, mirror on the wall
Show me where their bombs will fall
Mirror, mirror on the wall
Show me where their bombs will fall
                              – Arcade Fire, “Black Mirror”

“You shall not murder.”
                – God, Exodus 20:13

        This week was a very busy one for Mr. Obama. With the media hype about Syria reaching fever-pitch, Obama felt compelled to take time out from backing a military coup d’état in Egypt, killing Yemenis, Somali and Pakistani children with drone strikes, supplying chemical weapons to Israel for use against Palestinians, prosecuting a war of aggression in Afghanistan, spying on Americans via the NSA, violently suppressing political dissent at home, and facilitating the torture of prisoners at America’s iconic concentration camp in Guantanamo Bay, to denounce the Assad regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons. With an appropriately stony visage and folded hands, Obama told the American public that the Assad regime was guilty of violating international norms. And international norms, the public is to understand, must be taken very seriously. 

        While Obama’s saber-rattling evokes the highest, blood-spattered form of hypocrisy, it is worth studying. Yes, its reasoning is hypocritical when not simply wrong, but it is representative of American foreign policy, more generally. By seeing beyond the platitudes and dissecting the dross, it is possible to reach a more coherent understanding of the government’s long-term goals in the Middle-East, as well as the internal dynamics that make up that dark demimonde of American foreign policy. Upon reflection, it becomes apparent that Obama’s approach to the war in Syria, far from signifying a break with the past, is premised on attitudes long-held by those who direct America’s foreign policy and redolent of the worst excesses of Bush II. Like Marlow from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, to study Obama’s speeches is to look upon the maps, monuments and might of great power, and to come away disillusioned, having seen the great evil that seethes within. 
        Watching Obama and Secretary of State Kerry shed crocodile tears over the war in Syria is not unlike watching a band of persistent peddlers attempt to hawk their quack drugs amongst an unbelieving audience. In any case, you have to admit, they have mastered the script. The furrowed brow, ramrod posture and staccato delivery are tools of the trade that both of them have perfected to the tee. And this is method acting – not only have they come to fit their roles but they believe in them. 

        Yet as the unreality of political theatrics is acted upon and consequently shapes objective reality, the audience quickly becomes lost in the ensuing chaos. Which Act in the Middle-East passion play is this, after all? The first, the second… the twentieth? Did the drama begin for the U.S. when the government chose to arm the Free Syrian Army, or the anti-regime rebels affiliated with al-Qaeda? Or did it begin with the inception of the “War on Terror,” when Assad assisted the U.S. in its invasion of Iraq, and even went so far as to help the CIA torture prisoners obtained through its program of extraordinary rendition? Is it possible to forget the words of former CIA agent Robert Bauer, when he said, “If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria”? 

        But maybe this assessment is wrong. Perhaps Obama’s saber-rattling signifies not so much the opening of a new Act, as the unfolding of a sequel. A sequel to what? Is the present U.S. attack against Syria a sequel to their intervention in the Lebanon war of the 1980s (Syria was a key party in the conflict) when the U.S. increased arms-shipments to Israel while its army invaded the region – even as President Reagan and Secretary of State Haig claimed to be impartial arbiters of the conflict? Or is this a sequel to the Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916), in which the Western powers colonized the Middle East through an illegal backroom deal without any regard for the welfare of the region’s inhabitants: “...that in the blue area [Syria and Lebanon] France, and in the red area Great Britain, shall be allowed to such direct and indirect administrative control as they desire” (my italics). Is this why the U.S., Britain and France talk so freely about contributing to the current carnage? Between this triumvirate of power and privilege, no violence seems too taboo for discussion. After all, two of these powers ravaged the region for decades as its imperial overlords and one of them, the U.S., has been carrying the mantle of the white man’s burden ever since. Any inhibitions against the use of violence, that is, “intervention,” have long been sloughed off. 

        The official justification for intervention resounds with literary devices, most notably the use of dramatic irony. Obama et al. delude themselves into believing that their logic is coherent and ironclad, even while its contradictions glare at the audience. There are four thematic contradictions which run through not only Washington’s approach to the war in Syria, but America’s foreign policy in general:

        First, the administration claims that it seeks to directly intervene primarily for the good of the beleaguered Syrian people; its interests in intervening are, at the fore, humanitarian ones. Consequently, Obama has construed the cases of Kosovo and Rwanda as precedents for armed intervention in Syria. This is the sugar-coating on the intervention pill that they are trying to get the American public – only 9% of whom support intervention – to swallow. Yes this is a difficult decision, they admit, but it is the moral one. Or so they claim. 

        Yet while framing intervention as a primarily humanitarian measure, for public consumption, the administration formally argues that the intervention is primarily a self-defense measure, especially against the use of chemical weapons. Like Bush, Obama is not only raising the WMD card without evidence of its use by the Assad regime, but, furthermore, claims that the existence of this supposed WMD is a threat to national security. While this similarity has rightly elicited much commentary from critics, the contradictions it envelops have been paid less note. With customary bluster, the government claims that it is pursuing intervention for two contradictory reasons: one, primarily for the good of the Syrian people; two, primarily for the defense of the American people. 

        Why does Obama pursue this double-sided – that is, contradictory – approach? The answer is simple. He is trying to win the support of both hawks and doves by shifting the focus of intervention depending on the sensibilities of his audience. Above all, the president is trying to build as broad of a basis as possible for justifying intervention, one which adds more substance to this policy than previous (irresponsible) rhetoric about one side crossing a proverbial “red line” – as if the war was some wild-west showdown between Assad and the U.S. Consolidating domestic support or, at the very least, passive tolerance for intervention is a political imperative for Obama, seeing as the U.N. and some of the U.S.’s closest allies are firmly opposed to such a measure.

        Second, the administration entertains the pretense of upholding international law, but in practice this means upholding the law only when doing so fits the government’s perceived interests. International law is an ideal to be championed or perverted when convenient, but something to be ignored altogether when it clashes with the “national interest” – that is, the perceived interests of those in power. The administration has railed against Assad for violating “international norms,” but norms do not hold the same force as laws. More important though, is the fact that international law is inconclusive at best when it comes to intervening in Syria. And this is assuming that Assad has used chemical weapons or is deliberately engaged in cross-border violence, though there is no concrete evidence to affirm this. 

        And if the Assad regime did use chemical weapons, this would by no means justify intervention either. As the political commentator Marwan Bishara notes, “Damascus isn’t a signatory to the chemical and biological treaties, and Washington cannot make a case that Syria has violated any of its international legal obligations, regardless of whether it used poison gas.” It is further worth noting that these treaties carry no legal provisions that actually allow for the punishment of parties which contravene it. 

        Moreover, the Obama administration’s refusal to operate within preexisting legal channels for ending the war belie its claim that intervention would be based on a respect for international norms and laws. A recent article in McClatchy Newspapers notes that “The U.S. has already dismissed the U.N. as an avenue for action on Syria because any resolutions are certain to be blocked by Assad’s ally, Russia, which holds veto power on the Security Council.” Put another way, the administration has decided to not seek the legal prerequisite for intervention in Syria because the preexisting legal framework is not amenable to such a policy. 

        So while inveighing against Syria for failing to abide by international norms and laws, the U.S. government is charting a path for war that clearly violates both of these. The irony is that in the case of Syria, it is unclear as to what relevant international laws have been broken (if any), that allow for outside intervention; if the U.S. attacks Syria without first securing the support of the international community, however, it will be very clear as to what norms and laws the U.S. has violated. 

        Third, the Obama administration’s use of the terms peace, morality and even “the world” are constrained by elite self-interest. As shown below, this point is intimately related to the previous point concerning international law, since it shows how even apparently uncontroversial terms can be twisted against themselves for narrowly-conceived purposes. 

        One of the most interesting statements made by Obama is the idea that international laws and norms can be dispensed of during the march to war because they hinder quick and effective action. U.N. authorization is unnecessary because “We don’t want the world to be paralyzed” by litigious red-tape (another “red line” not to cross?). Of course, the legal system exists precisely because hasty action in difficult situations can have disastrous consequences. One wonders if the abortive Iraq War would have ever gone underway if the Bush administration had chosen to respect the existing legal framework: the checks and balances of Congress, U.N. strictures, the prohibition against wars of aggression, etc. 

        But this statement is noteworthy at another level; it betrays deep-seated assumptions of power that guide American policymakers. When Obama speaks of the “world” being paralyzed, he is in actuality speaking of the U.S. government. The restraining force or paralysis is, ironically, the world – the vast majority of humanity, which happens to oppose U.S. intervention. The term “world” consequently functions much the same as the royal “we.” The interests of the “world” are understood to be interchangeable with the whims of the U.S. government, just as the interests of the commoner were understood to be interchangeable with the fancies of the monarch in Elizabethan England. It is then, no wonder that the government can both wax over the precepts of international law and ignore it in the same breathe: American policymakers believe that their policies establish international law, even when they violate it in practice. They are the law.

        And this royal “we” is just as elitist in its assumptions as that of the monarchs of Europe’s past. The most recent polls show that the majority of Americans are firmly opposed to intervention in Syria, with only 9% expressing favor for Obama’s policy line. This is immaterial to those who occupy the rarefied world of policymaking, though; they know what’s best. They, after all, are the American people; they are the “world.” 

        But what are the real conditions in Syria and would armed intervention help? 

        The Obama administration’s focus on chemical weapons again involves certain uncomfortable ironies. Right now, there is no positive proof that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons. By contrast, there is much stronger evidence which suggests that chemical weapons have been used by members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – the faction that the U.S. backs with both logistical and material aid. Carla Del Ponte, head of the U.N. Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, has stated that there is “strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way… [that some] victims were treated.” But these suspicions involve “use on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities.” 

        Veteran journalist, Jason Hirthler, has presciently noted that “Nobody mainstream has bothered to point out that Assad would have to be suicidal to launch an attack with inspectors in-country, and with the use of chemical weapons being President Barack Obama’s vaunted ‘red line’ across which no sovereign Shi’ite government can cross.” That Assad would use chemical weapons right after allowing U.N. inspectors into the country, thus handing the U.S. a propaganda coup and a pretext for attack, defies commonsense. Whatever Assad may be, he is no idiot – one does not survive the cutthroat politics of Lebanon and Syria unless they have considerable political foresight. Yet as with Iraq and shrill cries of WMD, the chemical weapons issue can be readily grasped by the public and it gives the government a palatable pretext for intervening. 

        And as in the case of Iraq, no concrete evidence has been offered by the U.S. government to back these claims. Officials imply that the sites where the weapons were supposedly used are either too old or corrupted for use as evidence. Such claims are either disingenuous or painfully naïve. As any WWI history buff knows, chemical weapons are highly potent and generally remain in the ground for several months after their use. This includes sarin gas, the weapon purportedly used by the Assad regime. In more recent times, the longevity of their effects were demonstrated during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), during which countless soldiers from both sides were maimed or killed by exposure to poison gas that had percolated into the soil, only to be wafted up by oncoming troops. Much of the gas, in this case, was supplied to Iraq by the U.S. and other western countries, the very countries now pontificating about the horror of chemical weaponry. At least in the case of Iraq, the U.S. knew that Iraq had at one time owned WMD – that is, the chemical weapons that the U.S. gave it. 

        The cold hard truth is that Syria is currently hemorrhaging from a civil war between regime loyalists, a motely band of rebels – some of whom are affiliated with al-Qaeda – and the majority of Syrians who are caught in the middle, desperately longing for peace. This is ultimately a political conflict and a set of “surgical” or “limited” airstrikes by the U.S. would only serve to increase the death toll, which has now surpassed 100,000 lives. Even in the “good” interventions, such as in Kosovo during the 1990s, the death rate increased dramatically when the U.S. intervened. When a government has its back against the wall without the hope of getting out, they will fight to the death. If Assad really is the cold-hearted killer that the Obama administration portrays him to be, then this rings even truer. 

        Obama’s proposed missile strike would not bring peace, and, most disturbingly, it is not premised on a real commitment to progress or peace in the region. The president admitted as much when he stressed that, “We’re not considering any open-ended commitment.” Put in simpler language, the proposed missile strikes do not embody a genuine “commitment” to real change; they only provide an opportunity for Obama to protect his reputation as a decisive statesman who is willing to address “tough” issues. 

        If the administration was sincerely committed to peace in the region, it would have sought a diplomatic solution to the conflict during the past two years in which the civil war has been underway. There is a reason for this lack of effort. America’s strongest allies in the Middle-East, the Arab states and Israel in particular, are enemies of Syria. The regional balance of power, broadly interpreted, lies as follows: the “Shi’ite Crescent” composed of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran, which sits at odds with the wealthy (and Sunni) Gulf States, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Israel and Turkey – all of which have close ties with the U.S. Simply put, the countries that are the closest to the U.S. and historically most at odds with Syria are precisely those that support regime change for their own purposes. 

        And, of course, the U.S. is not an impartial observer of the regions affairs. During the Bush administration, for instance, policymakers seriously considered adding Syria as another spoke on Bush’s now infamous “Axis of Evil.” Hafiz Assad, Bashar’s father, was one of the most outspoken politicians who opposed American/Israeli policies in the region during the past decades, and tensions between the two countries have simmered since Syria sided with Iran against Iraq, America’s proxy, during the interminable Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. The American government has consistently show contempt for the inhabitants of Syria, too. It is important to remember that many of Syrians who have fled their country are of Palestinian ethnicity, whose families originally arrived in Syria as refugees after being ethnically-cleansed from their homes in Palestine with U.S. backing. When American officials gaze upon the stygian terror unfolding in Syria they are, in a very real respect, looking at a mirror of their own sins from the past and present. 

        But why, one may ask, is Obama trying to ram through a missile strike on Syria? In the 1990s the Clinton administration ordered a missile strike on Iraq codenamed Operation Desert Fox. Besides channeling attention away from Clinton’s extra-marital affair with Monica Lewinsky, the operation allowed him to look tough on foreign affairs without expending the effort necessary to achieve sustainable peace in the region. Then, as now, the strikes were called surgical, narrow and precise. Without “boots on the ground,” no one in the West had to witness the numerous civilian deaths that occurred as a result of these “surgical” strikes. No reporters had to witness the million-plus civilian deaths that had resulted from America’s illegal sanctions regimen on the country, which had been in force since the end of the Second Gulf War (the first American war with Iraq). 

        Today, Obama is in much the same position. No, there are no serious political scandals that he needs to suppress – though the Snowden Affair has shown that the administration is engaged in numerous illegal activities. (It is a telltale sign that something is seriously wrong when the kangaroo court (FISA) set up to provide a veneer of legitimacy to an illegal surveillance apparatus itself calls these activities unconstitutional.) However, Obama is trying to maintain his image as a serious statesman who has mastery over foreign affairs. To not act gives his critics an excuse to call him weak or ineffectual. 

        And one cannot overestimate the importance of image in politics. For in politics image – not substance – is everything. John F. Kennedy instigated the Cuban Missile Crisis by imposing an illegal blockade on Cuba in an attempt to maintain his reputation as a strong leader. Lyndon B. Johnson refused to allow Vietnam to “fall” out of a manic fear that the ascent of a communist government would spell the end of his political career. In these cases, as in the case of Syria, the concept of national self-interest is understood to be synonymous with the political interests of those in power. After all, they are the “world.” 

        A recent article in ‘The New York Times’ spelled out Obama’s dilemma like so: “Obama’s quandary is that he boxed himself in by setting a ‘red line’ on the use of chemical weapons by Syria, a line he now feels obligated to enforce to assume his credibility.” But the only “red lines” are those of his own making; they are imagined, fictive and easily transgressed. Above all, they function as little more than a self-serving and self-made rationalization that allow for the destruction of more Syrian lives – in other words, more human lives. If there is any “red line” it is that which enshrines the essential dignity of human life, best captured in the divine command, “You shall not murder.” 

        Let us pray that Mr. Obama chooses to not cross this red line.