By CHARLES M. BLOW
New York Times News Service
One of the most gut-wrenching scenes from Syria is captured in the images of row upon row of dead civilians. The dead include many children, swaddled in white cloths, angels laid down never to rise again.
According to the United States, President Bashar Assad of Syria used chemical weapons Aug. 21 to kill 1,429 of his own citizens, 426 of them children.
No fully functional heart can see these images and not break, the horror and grotesqueness of the slaughter of innocents being so abhorrent.
These dead children have become linchpins of the Obama administration’s argument to sell Congress and the American people on the need to strike Syria.
Last Saturday, when President Barack Obama announced that he had made the decision that the United States should take military action against Syria, he challenged Congress:
“Here’s my question for every member of Congress and every member of the global community: What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?”
What price should be and how it must be paid is the question here. The bombs-or-nothing argument that many proponents of U.S. military action have taken rings hollow. There is a mile of distance between grieving for dead children and avenging those deaths through military force.
Furthermore, one can simultaneously express sorrow for the dead, particularly the children, and resist direct U.S. military intervention. This is a false choice that uses the dead children as a mask for America’s militaristic instinct, and one that I find repugnant.
In fact, the everyday rhetoric in support of a U.S. strike becomes evermore expansive. This is no longer just about punishing Assad for using chemical weapons. It’s now about sending a signal and shoring up U.S. credibility at the risk of war spreading throughout the region. So creeps the mission.
I recognize that the Syrian war is an acute crisis and that we — and the rest of the world that is willing to sit back as we shoulder the responsibility — need a clear, cogent way to deal with it. The human toll in Syria is staggering.
Still, above all, I’m haunted by the images of the children. But the truth is, they must mingle with the children who haunt me without consummate photographic documentation or international outrage.
They are the millions of other children who die each year on this planet with little notice. Where is the intervention for them? Who will be their hero? Mass deaths grab the headlines more than individual ones, but every needless death of a child should needle our conscience.
According to a June report for UNICEF, “malnutrition contributes to 3.1 million under-5 child deaths annually, or 45 percent of all deaths for that age group.”
Here in the United States, the Department of Agriculture released a report this week that found for the fifth year in a row that 1 in 6 Americans are “food insecure,” many of them children. Most of them receive assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, yet Congress is considering cutting back on that aid.
Furthermore, a recent report by the Children’s Defense Fund pointed out:
“The number of children and teens killed by guns in 2010 was nearly five times the number of U.S. soldiers killed in action that year in Iraq and Afghanistan. Shouldn’t our legislators be as concerned about the wars at home as they are about the wars overseas?”
As you will no doubt recall, Congress punted on the most rudimentary of new gun control measures this year.
This is not to measure one child’s death against another or to diminish the gravity of what is happening in Syria. This is simply to say that every death of a child is a tragedy, and that the humanitarian impulse to help should also apply to the children of the world who die out of view of cameras and out of range of wars.
Do our hearts cry out for their deaths? Are we moved to action to prevent more deaths like theirs? A relatively sudden death from a poison gas attack is obviously horrific. But, is not a gradual death from starvation?
Yes, let’s remember and mourn and be motivated by the dead children in Syria. But let’s also not forget all the other dead children of the world, including our own.