The Question of Saving Syrian Children

I think any American at this point who has seen the videos of Syrian children getting gassed by Assad – any of us who has any tendency toward reflection – has been led to ask what exactly his feelings are for.  We know that every feeling has a purpose and that, like faith, they were given to us for action.  As such, we look inside ourselves and thank God we are morally alive and feel something for the children – but this leads us to another more uncomfortable question.  It leads us to wonder whether it is colder to feel something and do nothing than simply to feel nothing.

We almost wish we had the latter, but this is not the case, and a video of gasping, convulsing innocents leads us to rush into war just as a picture of a drowned Syrian child makes us open up our borders to savages.  We simply do not see our fathers who will be blown to pieces fighting and our women who will be raped because we did things in the name of other people's children.  We feel, perhaps naturally but not rightly, that the children in the videos are our children.  We see in the dying eyes of the choking, shell-shocked, dust-covered Syrian child the eyes of our own, and we feel that any offense such as this is worth risking the lives of our friends and our families.

This is because we do not actually see the risk.  One thing is real, and the other is imaginary, and we believe that because one thing is imaginary, it can never become real.

War always affects children, and what so many of us have been slow to understand is that before Assad was gassing children, he was blowing them to bits.  Bulldozing them over with tanks.  Starving them to death.  The gas is what got us.  All the other things he has done (and any warring power must eventually do), and we have drawn the line at the gas.  We made a law that nobody must use gas, and because we made a law, we have made everything else seem like less of a crime.  What we have not asked is how many of Assad's friends' children have been killed by the rebels.  We have not asked who the rebels are or why they are rebelling or whether they are better than Assad.  But we want to meddle in Syria as we meddled in Iraq – as we meddled in Iran – as we want to meddle everywhere we see pictures of people being brutalized.  Our hearts and our wallets lead us to break hearts and drain wallets.  We worry that Syrians are dying, so we may send Americans to die.

I do not claim to be an expert of realpolitik or international relations or the code we have for butchering one another known as The Laws of War.  I do not question that there are laws for tearing your neighbors to shreds and putting holes through them and running them over with tanks and crushing them under buildings and setting them on fire because this is what people must do – a necessary occupation like running a farm or pulling teeth.  I do not claim that war itself is unnecessary, or that there must be no joy in it, or that all soldiers must be treated as innocents under the authority of their generals.  There are crimes in the midst of this non-crime called war that are more barbaric and offensive than ordinary crimes.  What I do question is the timing of it all – whether every child butchered by a tyrant is worth our blood and our sweat and our tears; whether it is possible to stop every villain or necessary; whether I am personally responsible to alleviate all the suffering in the entire world – whether the life of a Syrian child is worth risking the life of my own.

Americans are held responsible when tyrants are bad and held responsible for everything that happens when we topple them.  We will never have the world's applause as meddlers, and when we meddle, we are not even willing to see our meddling through.  We will never be cleared by the world for our policing when most of the leaders of the world are essentially criminal, and the majority of the people they lead are ignoramuses.  The question is not how the Syrians will judge us, but how our own grandchildren will.  The stakes are great whether we stay or we go.  But I believe in my limited understanding that they are greater if we go.

On a more personal level, this article was especially hard for me to write.  What I felt when I saw the Syrian children who'd been gassed cannot exactly be described in words – certainly not by horror, and certainly not by anger.  It was worse than these can express.  I know how it feels to hold your child in your arms and wonder if he's going to make it – the helpless feeling that nobody is listening, that there is nothing left to do but stand there and weep and hope it all passes.  I was lucky, and these Syrians aren't, and that is the difference between us.  I called out to God, and they called out to God, and both of us wondered if He heard us at all.  Only one of us left with his child intact.  I still question whether He loves us or not.  I wonder what the Syrian thinks.

To see anyone go through anything like this and then have to make a decision – to decide whether someone else will go through it again or not or whether you will merely change the people who are going through it – is what this essay is about.  It is what every debate over refugees and war crimes is about.

I do not want to play God or even run for president.  I don't want to decide with the ballot box which mothers will grieve over their children and which won't.  But I am an American – and my duty, if I have any before God at all, is to make sure that my family and American families are free from the ravages of war.  Sometimes this will mean killing people.  Other times it will mean saving them.  In the world of international politics, it will most usually mean both.  But it will always involve a decision.  And I will always hate the fact that God has forced me in my limited capacity to make it.

Jeremy Egerer is the author of the troublesome essays on Letters to Hannah, and he welcomes followers on Twitter and Facebook.

I think any American at this point who has seen the videos of Syrian children getting gassed by Assad – any of us who has any tendency toward reflection – has been led to ask what exactly his feelings are for.  We know that every feeling has a purpose and that, like faith, they were given to us for action.  As such, we look inside ourselves and thank God we are morally alive and feel something for the children – but this leads us to another more uncomfortable question.  It leads us to wonder whether it is colder to feel something and do nothing than simply to feel nothing.

We almost wish we had the latter, but this is not the case, and a video of gasping, convulsing innocents leads us to rush into war just as a picture of a drowned Syrian child makes us open up our borders to savages.  We simply do not see our fathers who will be blown to pieces fighting and our women who will be raped because we did things in the name of other people's children.  We feel, perhaps naturally but not rightly, that the children in the videos are our children.  We see in the dying eyes of the choking, shell-shocked, dust-covered Syrian child the eyes of our own, and we feel that any offense such as this is worth risking the lives of our friends and our families.

This is because we do not actually see the risk.  One thing is real, and the other is imaginary, and we believe that because one thing is imaginary, it can never become real.

War always affects children, and what so many of us have been slow to understand is that before Assad was gassing children, he was blowing them to bits.  Bulldozing them over with tanks.  Starving them to death.  The gas is what got us.  All the other things he has done (and any warring power must eventually do), and we have drawn the line at the gas.  We made a law that nobody must use gas, and because we made a law, we have made everything else seem like less of a crime.  What we have not asked is how many of Assad's friends' children have been killed by the rebels.  We have not asked who the rebels are or why they are rebelling or whether they are better than Assad.  But we want to meddle in Syria as we meddled in Iraq – as we meddled in Iran – as we want to meddle everywhere we see pictures of people being brutalized.  Our hearts and our wallets lead us to break hearts and drain wallets.  We worry that Syrians are dying, so we may send Americans to die.

I do not claim to be an expert of realpolitik or international relations or the code we have for butchering one another known as The Laws of War.  I do not question that there are laws for tearing your neighbors to shreds and putting holes through them and running them over with tanks and crushing them under buildings and setting them on fire because this is what people must do – a necessary occupation like running a farm or pulling teeth.  I do not claim that war itself is unnecessary, or that there must be no joy in it, or that all soldiers must be treated as innocents under the authority of their generals.  There are crimes in the midst of this non-crime called war that are more barbaric and offensive than ordinary crimes.  What I do question is the timing of it all – whether every child butchered by a tyrant is worth our blood and our sweat and our tears; whether it is possible to stop every villain or necessary; whether I am personally responsible to alleviate all the suffering in the entire world – whether the life of a Syrian child is worth risking the life of my own.

Americans are held responsible when tyrants are bad and held responsible for everything that happens when we topple them.  We will never have the world's applause as meddlers, and when we meddle, we are not even willing to see our meddling through.  We will never be cleared by the world for our policing when most of the leaders of the world are essentially criminal, and the majority of the people they lead are ignoramuses.  The question is not how the Syrians will judge us, but how our own grandchildren will.  The stakes are great whether we stay or we go.  But I believe in my limited understanding that they are greater if we go.

On a more personal level, this article was especially hard for me to write.  What I felt when I saw the Syrian children who'd been gassed cannot exactly be described in words – certainly not by horror, and certainly not by anger.  It was worse than these can express.  I know how it feels to hold your child in your arms and wonder if he's going to make it – the helpless feeling that nobody is listening, that there is nothing left to do but stand there and weep and hope it all passes.  I was lucky, and these Syrians aren't, and that is the difference between us.  I called out to God, and they called out to God, and both of us wondered if He heard us at all.  Only one of us left with his child intact.  I still question whether He loves us or not.  I wonder what the Syrian thinks.

To see anyone go through anything like this and then have to make a decision – to decide whether someone else will go through it again or not or whether you will merely change the people who are going through it – is what this essay is about.  It is what every debate over refugees and war crimes is about.

I do not want to play God or even run for president.  I don't want to decide with the ballot box which mothers will grieve over their children and which won't.  But I am an American – and my duty, if I have any before God at all, is to make sure that my family and American families are free from the ravages of war.  Sometimes this will mean killing people.  Other times it will mean saving them.  In the world of international politics, it will most usually mean both.  But it will always involve a decision.  And I will always hate the fact that God has forced me in my limited capacity to make it.

Jeremy Egerer is the author of the troublesome essays on Letters to Hannah, and he welcomes followers on Twitter and Facebook.

RECENT VIDEOS