Friday, September 7, 2012

The Consent of the Governed: Why Americans Should Care About Syria

A few months ago, I went to Philadelphia for a library conference. I had some free time, so I went to Independence Hall and toured the room where both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed. At the front of the room was George Washington's chair; the very chair he sat in over 200 years ago while presiding over the constitutional debates. I stood and stared at the back of that chair, where there is a carving of the sun on the horizon.  I had just read that all through the debates, an aging Benjamin Franklin pondered that same sun, wondering whether it was rising or setting. When the delegates finally resolved their differences, and were signing the Constitution, he remarked that he was glad to see it was a rising sun.

I found this pretty awe-inspiring. So of course, I took a picture of the room and posted it on Facebook. But then, my friend Nora made a comment on the picture that was as powerful to me as standing in that room. “Amazing," she said, "makes me tear up actually considering events in Syria." You see, Nora grew up in the United States, but her family is from Syria, a country currently in the midst of its own struggle for freedom from tyranny. The Assad regime is responding to this movement by killing its own citizens; committing atrocities like sending out snipers to shoot children and pregnant women. Nora's grandfather was killed by that regime years ago, and she still has a grandmother and other family there. So far, over 24,000 people have been killed in Syria, many of them non-combatants, and many more have been detained and tortured, or have fled as refugees. It is the most deadly conflict going on in the world today, and much of the killing is deliberate, cold-blooded targeting of civilians by their own government.

Reading her comment, I realized that Nora knows better than most other Americans how great it is to live in a country free from this sort of tyranny. Most of us here are so accustomed to publicly disagreeing with our leaders that we take it for granted, rarely stopping to think how lucky we are. We don't have to worry that armed men will come for us in the night for speaking our minds. Nora knows exactly how lucky we are, because her family is from a place where they do.

Despite the horrors going on right now in Syria, many Americans don't think about the situation there very much. It's all too easy to forget about things we don't see on a daily basis; things that don't effect us personally. If you don't know anyone from Syria, the situation may seem remote and abstract. I'm not proud of this, but I admit I think about it more because I know Nora. She and her family are very real to me. I met them when I first moved to Louisiana, and needed a place to stay while I looked for an apartment. Nora had placed an ad for someone to sublet their apartment for six weeks. Her husband was a medical student at the time, and they were going to Miami while he did a medical rotation there. It was exactly what I was looking for. On my first night in town they asked me to sleep in their living room, even though they had barely met me. I did.  Later on, I got to know them. Nora is a beautiful, kindhearted woman, and her husband Luke is an incredibly nice guy from Canada. They have a two-year-old daughter who is honestly one of the most adorable children I've ever seen, with big dark eyes and curly brown hair. They're a lovely, intelligent family.  I hear Nora tell me about her grandfather, and think about what might have become of her if her father had never gotten out of Syria. I read about the children being targeted by snipers, and think about her beautiful little girl. What if she had been born there?

I'd like to ask you to put yourself in my shoes for a while. Imagine that you know a family like Nora's.  They aren't abstractions to you, but a real, flesh-and-blood family of bright, fun people who invite you over for dinner. You've laughed with them, played with their little girl, and hugged them all goodnight. Think about Nora's reaction to my picture of Independence Hall; how inspired she was by the American struggle for freedom, and her hopes that the Syrian people will attain such freedoms. Now ask yourself this: should we Americans should do more to help people in countries like Syria gain freedom from tyranny? I absolutely think we should. I think we should take another look at the Declaration of Independence, and realize that it promotes principles that should apply not just to Americans, but to all people. If you're skeptical about this, let's take a look at what it actually says.

Universal Principles in the Declaration of Independence

The Declaration was written in part to explain to the rest of the world why the American colonies were separating from British rule. It states that when people are separating from their previous government,
a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. 
The Declaration then begins setting out these causes, in some of the most famous and inspiring lines ever written: 
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Of course, when the Declaration was written, it really did mean all men, and not even all men, but all white men. Women and minorities were not considered equal. But the ideas behind the Declaration proved, over time, to be more powerful than the prejudices of the men who wrote it. Today we can see the document as meaning that all people are endowed with equal rights. Notice it doesn't just say “all Americans”. The Declaration is a statement of universal principles...more universal, perhaps, than its creators were immediately comfortable with, but that's the danger of having such powerful ideas. They outlive their creators. They outgrow their creators.

Now consider the next lines:
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
In other words, governments exist for the purpose of ensuring the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The only just government is one whose aim is to do that. If it consistently fails, then its citizens have every right to abolish it and try to create one that does. Of course, the founders realized that doing so is an extreme measure, and only justified in extreme circumstances:
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
Abuses and Despotism

Things need to be pretty unbearable to justify a people rising up in revolution.  Which brings us back to Syria.  If you agree that the Declaration should be interpreted as stating universal principles--principles which should apply to all people around the world--then the next question is this: are the abuses by the Syrian government egregious enough to warrant the Syrian people rising up to overthrow it? The answer: absolutely. If you aren't already convinced of this, consider the video I'm posting below. Please read the description, and then decide whether you want to watch it. It is graphic and heartbreaking--a shocking record of real evil. You may want to just read the description, but please take the time to do that. As awful as it is, it shows the kind of thing that is happening, right now, to real people.

Here's the background: on August 25, after the Syrian government shelled the town of Daraya for five days, troops entered and began killing people--men, women, and children--often in close-range executions.  The video shows what happened next.  A pretty female reporter for the news channel Al-Dunya (private, but pro-Assad) walks onto a street littered with dead people and starts talking about how "terrorists" killed them; in the name of "freedom", she sneers.  After the cameras linger on bloody images of dead bodies, she approaches an old woman who has been shot several times.  She says, "Here is a woman still clinging to life.  We'll talk to her, and we will hear--and you will hear--what happened to her."  Before the woman gets any medical attention, she is interviewed by the reporter, who is trying to get her to say that rebels shot her. She says she doesn't know who did it, and worries aloud about what happened to her children. The reporter then interviews a woman who claims the Syrian army saved them from rebel forces.  In other footage, men say the same thing, but then say, "Nobody forced us to say this". They are, of course, surrounded by soldiers. The reporter goes on to interview a little girl in the back of a cart, lying between her wounded brother and her dead mother.  The traumatized child is still running her hands over her mother's body.  The camera lingers on a gunshot wound in the head of a dead toddler lying on the cart, then the reporter puts the microphone in the little girl's face and says, "Who is this beside you?"  The little girls says, "My mommy."  The video ends with footage of a mother lying on top of her child, still in the position of trying to shield him with her body.  But he is dead too.

To ensure that I won't be accused of stacking the cards here, I will tell you now that there are people other than the Assad regime saying that rebel forces killed these people, or that they were killed in some sort of botched prisoner exchange.  But I don't believe it. These people clearly weren't prisoners.  They were driving, riding motorcycles, and walking when they were attacked.  Why would small children have been prisoners? Also, it doesn't appear that they were caught in the crossfire of battle, because many of their wounds are too accurate, too precise.  The gunmen had time to take aim. It's clear that the Syrian army indiscriminately shelled the town for days, and the regime has a long history of murdering its citizens.  Human Rights Watch has actually documented the regime offering bread to civilians, and then opening fire on people in the breadlines.  Finally, the absolute callousness of the reporter in the pro-Assad video speaks for itself.  She is far more interested in glorifying the Assad regime than in the lives of the people she interviews, whom she treats like stage props. Most likely, she entered Daraya with, or just after, Syrian forces or pro-Assad militias, who then murdered civilians.  Then she calmly interviewed the survivors, some of whom were terrified into saying what she wanted them to say. I don't use the word "evil" lightly.  But this is evil.

What Can Be Done?

Based on this video, and numerous other reports of atrocities, it's abundantly clear the Assad regime needs to go. It's a government of oppression and murder; and should by all rights be replaced with a Syrian government of the people, by the people, and for the people. But here, of course, another question arises: What should Americans do to help? How do we know this government won't be replaced by a worse one (unlikely), or one that will bring more instability into an already volatile region (not as unlikely)? We don't, of course. The situation in Syria is a diplomatic nightmare, and that has helped perpetuate the tragedy. The Syrian regime has been a powerful player in Middle Eastern politics for a long time. It has dominated the government of Lebanon, and is closely allied with Iran. Not only that, but it has close ties to Russia and China, who have used their veto power in the UN Security Council to prevent the UN from taking any effective action to stop the killing. The Free Syrian Army, like any revolutionary army, has some unsavory elements, and has committed misdeeds of its own (though nothing like the massive and systematic atrocities of the Syrian government). Any good solution, then, will have to ensure that the new government in Syria doesn't start committing its own abuses.

It's an incredibly complex situation, and I'm abundantly unqualified to recommend concrete steps to solve it. I'm simply trying to convince you that the situation is tragic, and that we should care. We are lucky enough to have lived in a country that has implemented the principles in our Declaration of Independence well enough to prosper and avoid tyranny for over 200 years. I believe we should find a way--as Americans and as human beings--to help implement real international enforcement of these principles. Governments exist to ensure people their rights, and if they fail, they forfeit their right to govern. It's a shame upon humankind that we haven't learned to cooperate well enough to remove tyrants like Assad before they kill so many people. We can do better.  We should do better.

If you've read this far, you may be thinking of objections to my argument. That's fine, but let me make sure I'm making my actual argument clear, so I'm not misunderstood. I'm not saying Americans should pay more attention to problems in other countries than to problems here; nor am I saying we need an all-powerful world government. I'm saying we need more global compassion, and more effective global laws against human rights abuses. Really, any government that deserves to exist should welcome the idea of a fair, enforceable international law that states that if it abuses the rights of its citizens, it has to go. As long as such laws are fairly applied (and I know that's a big if) then no just government has anything to fear from them.  That may sound uncomfortably like the argument some make against people's right to privacy, but the difference is that governments aren't people.  Governments themselves don't have rights.  People do.

These are big, abstract ideas, and those can only go so far. To say the situation in Syria is tragic, and that we should care more and work toward better international laws—that's all fine, but it won't do the people of Syria any immediate good. So what will? As I said, I'm not qualified to answer that question. So I asked my friend Nora. I've reprinted her response below. Please...give it a minute of your time. Nora helped start an organization called the FREE-Syria Foundation, dedicated to helping people hurt by the conflict in Syria.  She recently met with Robert Ford, the American ambassador to Syria, to discuss FREE-Syria's efforts; and she is hoping to travel to Turkey to help improve conditions in refugee camps.  FREE-Syria's activities are entirely non-violent and humanitarian. The more support they get, the more good they will be able to do.  Once again, the situation in Syria is the deadliest in the world right now.  The Syrian people need to see their own rising sun, and Nora is one of many dedicated people working hard to ensure that they do.

Nora's Response:
    I think caring about the issue is a huge first step, and seeking more information is tremendously important. There's a lot out there, but I can be better about posting news about what's going on to help provide more information.

    - Spreading the knowledge, educating others, and raising awareness is another thing you can do—through social media like Facebook and Twitter--since the media are still not providing enough coverage about what's going on. 

    - You can also contact local media outlets in your areas to ask them to cover it more.

    - Contact your representatives and congressmen to see where they stand on the issue and what they're doing about it. Maybe even educate them about it if they're not involved.

    - You can try to find your local Syrian community and see what events they have: sit-ins, charity events, etc.

    - As far as donations, I recommend the Free-Syria Foundation, which I am directly involved with. Our goals are humanitarian relief, education, and empowerment of women. We have very little overhead, and our main focus is on children and women. We are registered in the US, very trusted, and have no religious/sectarian affiliations. 


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