Is there anything you can do about Syria?

Jesse Steele: I have to be honest with you: as I write this, I have no idea where I’m going with this Syria thing. I know you’ve seen the pictures and heard the reports coming out of Syria lately and going all the way back to 2011, and it’s a crisis. Their leader, Assad, is a soft-spoken psychopathic ophthalmologist who inherited his daddy’s iron throne and legacy of an iron fist, so when the “Arab Spring” reaches Syria and protests break out, he attacks, bombs, and gasses peaceful protesters. Rather than crush the rebellion though, he just lights a spark he cannot put out, which flares up into “civil war” that quickly escalates into complete chaos.

Now Russia is involved somehow in propping this dude up, the US and other allies considered getting involved for a time but ultimately decided it was too risky to do much more than arm a few groups they trusted. Meanwhile, rebel sides range from moderate pro-democracy fighters to ISIS and continue to fracture and trade territory with the government. Civilians are caught in the middle,  and now we’re left with nothing short of a daily horror show.

On top of all of this, it’s not like Syria is even in the only massive global crisis right now. Setting aside terrorist attacks (like in Germany and Turkey) because that’s more than I can handle right now, just off the top of my head we’ve got: violent political conflict in South Sudan, a comic-if-it-weren’t-tragic, actual-self-confessed multiple murderer Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines actively killing and advocating for the killing of anyone who has ever heard of drugs, and a refugee crisis continuing in Europe.

It leaves a person feeling pretty small, helpless, and confused about the state of the world. I will readily admit I have no idea what to do here. It feels like foreign policy is made by far away people in dark, smokey rooms and I don’t know how a person like me can even begin to think about this, let alone do something. You have a degree in human rights. Fix this for us, Matt. Give me like, 2-3 steps to just clean this whole mess right up. We need to sing songs in a circle or something, right? That’s gotta be one of the steps…

Step 1: Go back in time.

Matt Hershberger: Okay, here’s my four step plan:

  1. Go back in time, murder baby Hitler.

  2. Go back in time, murder colonialism and, if possible, the entire concept of hierarchical power.

  3. ?????

  4. World peace.

Not helpful? Okay, let me answer your question as if you asked something totally different. Remember the Haiti earthquake back in 2010? It killed around 160,000 people. What you may not remember is that a month and a half after the Haiti earthquake, there was an earthquake in Chile. This earthquake only killed 525 people. Which is still a lot, but not when you take into account the fact that the Chilean earthquake was the 5th largest ever recorded, way bigger than the Haitian earthquake.

Why the difference?

The answer is, largely, that Chile is a developed Pacific Rim country that experiences earthquakes on the reg. Haiti is an extremely poor country where earthquake-resistant architecture is not really a thing, and which hasn’t been able to develop a disaster-proof infrastructure as a nation thanks to a string of kleptocratic or incompetent leaders, and also thanks to over two centuries of unfavorable trade policies and violent foreign intervention dating back to the successful Haitian slave uprising of the late 1700’s.

The lesson of Haiti and Chile is that disasters, whether natural or man-made, have a historical context that either limits or exacerbates the amount of damage they do. As a result, the best time to prevent disasters is before they happen. Once the disaster has started, all we can do is damage control. But if we do the less sexy, less obvious work ahead of time, we can either prevent the disaster altogether, or limit the scale of the destruction when it comes.

The truth is, we could’ve seen Syria — or something like Syria coming. And we actually contributed to it, with our constant destabilizing interference within the region. But we’ve allowed ourselves to be blinded to the larger issues in the region — poverty, neocolonialism, totalitarianism, sectarianism — by focusing on terrorism, which is less a cause of these problems, and more a symptom of them.

Part of the reason we spend too much time on the symptom and not enough time on the disease is because of our daily news cycle, which focuses on anecdotes instead of trends. It makes us more responsive than proactive, and it hobbles us from doing the long-term work that we need to do to keep Haitis and Syrias from happening. We can look to the impoverished places, the places more quietly troubled, and start doing the real disaster prevention work now.

What if I don’t have the time?

Jesse: Almost like how an apple a day, when strategically coupled with a national commitment to affordable preventative health care, keeps the emergency room doctor away, right? Are we doing Obamacare jokes here? Is there going to be an Obamacare blog? What avenues can you create for more Obamacare-based humor?

Ok, so I get it: international crises are really tough to do anything about once they really get going, and so if we want to prevent these atrocities from happening, we have to act sooner. Without getting too political here, I think maybe you’re suggesting that a general indifference to massive poverty and inequality are not recipes for a world full of happy healthy societies? Are you further suggesting that a little bit of awareness of world events might help us recognize a bad situation before its a catastrophic situation? And finally, are you suggesting that other people, despite being not in this room with me right now, have their well-being intertwined with mine in this giant interconnected world? I’m dubious, but for the sake of argument, I’ll take these radical suggestions at face value.

Three questions emerge out of this for me, but because you continue to refuse to explain what love is to me, I’ll just ask two:

  1. What does that preventative work look like? I’m busy enough as it is, do I have to be doing homework on the whole world all the time?

  2. Obviously, there’s some big news happening at home which seems to demand most of my time. Like everyone else, I work, I look at cool memes on the internet, I vision board, I eat, pray, and love, etc… to be blunt, like everyone, I only have so many fucks to give. Can you give me any kind of useful way to think about how I can balance paying attention to problems at home with crises and tragedy abroad?

Matt: I’ll accept Obamacare jokes for like, one more week. After that, you’ll have to repeal them and replace them with a more expensive joke that does irreversible harm to poor people.

To answer your questions (the latter two, as I’ve told you a hundred times, you’ll know what love is when you buy your first fleshlight):

First: the world is, as you say, indeed an interconnected place. And while that immense complexity makes it impossible to fully comprehend, it also means that small acts of your own can have huge ripples. So while you, one person, can’t do everything, it’s important to recognize that you can do something, and you can choose what you want to do specifically. My suggestion is to look at the current conflict, and identify what we in the US could’ve done to prevent it:

  1. If we hadn’t invaded Iraq in 2003, that wouldn’t have destabilized the region, and that would’ve helped.

  2. If we had done a better job historically of supporting democracy and human rights in the region for all people instead of undermining any leader or country whose economic interests clashed with our own, we would have a) probably a more stable situation in the Middle East right now, and b) more moral clout when it came to working against violence.

  3. Considering climate change has been a factor in both the Syrian and Sudaneseconflicts, it’s safe to say that swifter action on correcting our carbon emissions may have helped lower the possibility of full-on civil war.

Those are by no means all of the factors that contributed to the Syrian civil war, but it gives you three causes right there to support in the future:

  1. Work for peace and oppose war.

  2. Work for democracy and human rights.

  3. Fight climate change.

There are already hundreds of institutions that work for these causes. Take your pick and start donating or volunteering.

To answer your second question, the flip side of interconnectedness is that you are always complicit in injustice. An interconnected world leaves no one pure. So whenever you get the chance to stand up against an injustice, you should. And yes, a part of this is educating yourself. This doesn’t have to be boring, but I get that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

The thing is, citizenship of any kind carries duties as well as perks. And understanding the world you live in so that you can be an optimal citizen is one of those duties. Your time is limited, but you could always listen to news podcasts during your commute, or start your day by reading a newspaper. You don’t need to know everything, but you do have a basic human responsibility to try and learn about the world around you, and to act to make it a better place.

In short: you cannot do everything. But you must do something.

Going beyond “awareness raising”

Jesse: Reminds me very much of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” a story of how we all bear responsibility for the part of our world we choose not to see. Also of this wonderful article from Vox, which stresses how important it is to just “bear witness” to what’s happening.

It’s not really the same thing, but I work in a domestic violence organization, and one of the things we fight against all the time is what we call the “culture of silence” around domestic violence. We learn from a young age when we see signs of a bad or scary relationship, we tend to look away, excuse, whisper a quick word of concern, and then move on. This is how domestic violence is allowed to grow: this culture of silence gets normalized, and very soon we can be surrounded by violence (1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men will experience physical, sexual, or emotional abuse from an intimate partner in their lifetimes) but not even realize it. So it seems to be with humanitarian crisis.

As someone who is generally impatient, and who is writing on a blog about how people can take action, I don’t usually hold with “awareness raising”, but it seems to me from what you’re saying that one of the more important things we can do is force ourselves to look: force ourselves to pay attention, even if the images are disturbing and make us feel helpless. It sounds like you’re arguing that at the least, we owe these victims of horrible global tragedy our attention. Maybe if we do that, in some way we acknowledge our share of their pain and our share of their attackers’ culpability. We have to see it, and speak about what we’ve seen, because our global culture of silence cannot continue if we’re going to be proactive in preventing these human rights crises.

Of course, that’s all well and good, but we can only raise so much awareness — there has to be a step where there’s some practical action to be taken, right? What are the practical steps people can take beyond flogging themselves with news reports, Hotel Rwanda, and Holocaust movies?

Matt: Yeah, and don’t get me wrong — awareness raising is a good thing. But it’s predicated on the idea that if you see something terrible happening, you’ll do something about it. The fallacy behind raising awareness is that we assume humans are naturally good, active creatures, and thus will work to stop an injustice if we’re confronted with it. But, as we’ve learned from every Holocaust bystander down to every woke person who has ever let his racist uncle rail against blacks and gays at the Thanksgiving dinner table, humans can be insanely conflict avoidant.

So what I’m saying, that there’s not a ton you can do, isn’t to say you’re excused from doing something. If you follow the Night Vale maxim, “If you see something, say nothing, and drink to forget,” you’re complicit, to some extent, in what’s going on.

Now, what can you actually do?

  • Find out if there are refugees in your area. Find out who is hosting them, and find out how you can help. How do you do this? Simple!

  • Donate your time or money to an organization helping Syrians on the ground in Syria.

    • The International Red Cross helps people in need pretty much everywhere in the world, including Syria.

    • Doctor’s Without Borders is pretty much always helping out in an emergency, and has been on the ground in Aleppo.

    • The White Helmets are on the ground in Syria helping out people in need. They are literally in harm’s way saving people.

    • Mercy Corps offers direct assistant to refugees.

    • Shelterbox offers supplies and disaster relief wherever they’re needed.

    • UNICEF helps children everywhere, including Syria. And make no mistake — there are a lot of kids being harmed in this fight.

    • Oxfam is another dependably excellent charity that serves people and Syria and elsewhere. Oxfam is doubly excellent because they’re also advocates for anti-poverty global policy.

  • Get political.

    • One concrete way to show support is to call your Senator and ask them to support the Caesar bill, which would allow the US to institute no-fly zones in Syria and sanction the Assad regime.

    • Call your representative and ask them to support the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the US.

  • Also, pray, I guess, but only after you’ve done literally everything else on this list.

This list is obviously incomplete, and we’d welcome any additional suggestions (or quibbles) both in the comments of this page, and in the comments on Facebook. We’ll try to add stuff as we go.

There’s a final point worth making: a lot of the destabilization in Europe and the United States, as well as the rise of right-wing nationalists all over the world, has been fueled by Islamophobia, fear of refugees, fear of terrorism, and the perception (both by western conservatives and Islamic extremists) that we’re undergoing some sort of ridiculous, crusade-like “clash of civilizations.” So it’s not too huge of a stretch to say that Syria’s nightmare has also very much become our nightmare. If you’re the type of person who needs a self-interested reason to do something charitable, then there it is — mass violence in one part of a globalized world means destabilization and upheaval in other parts.

This also means there’s no such thing as an apolitical solution — you can’t divorce charity from the politics that have led to a situation where charity is required. So instead of wringing your hands in despair, just do something.

Featured photo by David Holt — picture shows the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria