Ethics & Public Policy Center

Syrian War Crimes and Selective Moral Outrage

Published in Commentary Magazine on August 27, 2013



On his program last night, Fox’s Bill O’Reilly, in speaking on the subject of strikes against Syria, said, “It’s got to be done quickly. Bang, boom. And then let the chips fall where they may. But no more dead kids breathing poison gas.” It appears the White House is considering the same strategy.

I happen to disagree with Mr. O’Reilly for reasons laid out by Max Boot and Eliot Cohen. Among the worst things to do in this situation would be a limited bombing of short duration which doesn’t alter the situation on the ground. It would be a transparently token gesture, done to balm our conscience (at least we didsomething) but achieving nothing useful or lasting. Indeed, the kind of strike O’Reilly has in mind–“bang, boom”–would probably elevate Bashar al-Assad’s reputation in much of the world (acting unbowed in the aftermath of an American military campaign) and make America appear weaker than we now do (if such a thing is even possible at this stage).

But I also want to pose some moral questions surrounding the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons. Secretary Kerry refers to the use of chemical weapons as a “moral obscenity” that “defies any code of morality” that has “shocked the conscience of the world.”

I share the horror that others do when it comes to the use of chemical weapons. But what I find somewhat puzzling is the bright, bold moral demarcation that is being made between the use of chemical weapons, which killed several hundred Syrians (including women and children), and a 30-month-old civil war that has claimed more than 100,000 lives (many of them women and children).

How is it, from a moral standpoint, that the use of chemical weapons that kills several hundred people is a far greater “moral obscenity” than prosecuting a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people? Why didn’t the civil war “shock the conscience of the world,” since the body count is so much greater?

The scale of death, then, matters. But so does something else. The Assad regime has long been guilty of war crimes. From the start of the conflict it targeted schools and hospitals. In cities like Houla, forces loyal to Assad went on systematic killing sprees, including targeting women and children. A U.N. representative reported that the victims in Houla included 49 children who were younger than 10. “The Syrian dictator is trying to restore a balance of fear, perhaps the most powerful weapon in the hands of tyrants throughout history,” according to this CNN report. “Killing children is supposed to intimidate the opposition.”

“It’s very hard for me to describe what I saw, the images were incredibly disturbing,” a Houla resident who hid in his home during a massacre told the Associated Press. “Women, children without heads, their brains or stomachs spilling out.”

So we’re dealing with a regime that routinely committed war crimes–indeed, that inflicted mass atrocities as a matter of policy. But these kinds of actions mostly escaped the attention of the world (as well as the attention of the president).

I’m not, by the way, using this argument as a pretext to get more involved in the Syrian conflict. It’s simply to argue that while I understand the abhorrence of using WMDs, the moral outrage we’re hearing over the atrocities in Syria strike me as somewhat affected. Why now? The humanitarian slaughter was gruesome long before chemical weapons were used, and chemical weapons are no more a gruesome way to die than the other barbarous actions sanctioned by Assad. And if another 100,000 Syrians perished at the hands of the Assad regime, but without the use of chemical weapons, one suspects that not much would be said and the moral outrage meter would, for the most part, hardly register.

I understand that all of us are selective in focusing on the atrocities that most trouble our consciences. None of us are equipped to absorb the pain of this world. And I don’t blame Mr. O’Reilly or anyone else for feeling rage at what Bashar al-Assad has done in using chemical weapons. But my basic point still stands, I think. Why have Assad’s latest atrocities provoked such outrage and his previous ones such silence? Should we be more troubled by what happened last week–or by the war crimes that routinely occurred in all the weeks that came before?

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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