We live in a complicated world

C.J. Chivers reports from an undisclosed location:

The Syrian rebels posed casually, standing over their prisoners with firearms pointed down at the shirtless and terrified men.

The prisoners, seven in all, were captured Syrian soldiers. Five were trussed, their backs marked with red welts. They kept their faces pressed to the dirt as the rebels’ commander recited a bitter revolutionary verse.

“For fifty years, they are companions to corruption,” he said. “We swear to the Lord of the Throne, that this is our oath: We will take revenge.”

The moment the poem ended, the commander, known as “the Uncle,” fired a bullet into the back of the first prisoner’s head. His gunmen followed suit, promptly killing all the men at their feet.

This scene, documented in a video smuggled out of Syria a few days ago by a former rebel who grew disgusted by the killings, offers a dark insight into how many rebels have adopted some of the same brutal and ruthless tactics as the regime they are trying to overthrow.

The New York Times reporter (one of their best — and I mean that) just got his hands on this video. Its content provides a graphic fresh image of the country in which the United States is about to become militarily entangled. The report is clearly intended as a warning: venture no closer.

What Chivers clearly didn’t realize when he filed his report (I’m assuming he’s in Turkey) was that the video he had just been handed was a year and a half old. Only after the story got published was the date of the video later corrected from April 2013 to the spring of 2012.

It’s not that there is the slightest reason to think that the situation in Syria has improved during the intervening period, yet I doubt that Chivers would have made the centerpiece of his presentation of “an increasingly criminal environment populated by gangs of highwaymen, kidnappers and killers,” a video made that long ago. It naturally begs the question: if you want to convey what Syria’s like in late 2013, why are you using a video from early 2012?

Moreover, in his choice of language — gangs of highwaymen, kidnappers and killers — why is Chivers now sounding like Bashar al-Assad who has always insisted that his battle is against criminals and terrorists?

Summary executions, wherever they take place, are always an ugly affair. Americans, however, are generally shielded from the brutal nature of such killing because the cases we most often hear about are not carried out at the order of a vindictive field commander, nor with bullets through the back of the head. Instead, all we hear is that an estimated number of suspected terrorists died in a covert drone strike that had presumably been authorized by the president. No blood, no bodies, no names.

The argument against Obama’s plan to strike Syria takes frequent twists and turns, but a theme that keeps on returning — they are all as bad as each other — appears like the ghost of 9/11.

What are Americans to make of the Middle East with its teeming masses of Muslims. Some Sunni, some Shia, and how to remember which is which, yet above all, each a potential terrorist. Surely the wisest course of action is to have nothing to do with the lot.

After 12 years we’re still talking about “bad guys” and our difficulty in knowing who they are — a difficulty that has led so many Americans to conclude: they’re all bad guys.

And then we’re told that even now the intelligence services, who are supposedly better informed than anyone else, are still struggling to connect the dots. Why? Because they haven’t finished working on their coloring books?

Maybe the problem has less to do with the nature of the Middle East, and more to do with the fact that Americans remain locked in a kindergarten mindset, seeing a world persistently rendered with no more complexity than a comic book. We imagine a comic book world, but we don’t actually live in one.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

7 thoughts on “We live in a complicated world

  1. Steve Zerger

    When we grasp for understanding of human history, we have the habit of focusing only on the specific violent human interactions which comprise the human narrative. That’s because we are unshakably convinced that we are special. We can’t see that we are merely a part of a larger community, not even really an essential part. In fact we are dangerously out of balance with that larger community. Divorced from the larger context, human interactions are inevitably just a lot of sound and fury.

  2. hquain

    One of the weirdest features of the ‘debate’ is its continuing focus on ‘the case for war’, which is all about whether the Bad Guys are bad enough and the other guys are really Good Guys.

    In the end, only one question matters: will it work? I.e. to improve the situation. Maybe the answer is so obvious that no one wants to acknowledge it.

  3. Paul Woodward

    One of the ways I think it’s useful to think about this debate, for or against Obama’s strike plan, is that it’s a bit like a debate over a big development project and there’s a pro-development group and an anti-development group and neither group is talking about the fact that no one has actually seen the plan. Of course we can’t even begin to address the question, will it work? if we don’t know what the plan is. By default, the argument goes in favor of the skeptics. How can someone (like Nicholas Kristoff) passionately say that this is the right thing to do when they have no idea what this thing is (beyond its utterly subjective “not too much, not too little, but just right” promise)?

Comments are closed.