Wednesday, September 4, 2013

To Bomb or Not To Bomb?

For the last three weeks, I've been reading Hannah Arendt's excellent book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.  Adolf Eichmann was the head of the section in the bloated Nazi bureaucracy responsible for transporting the Jews and others to concentration camps, including the most obscenely inhuman death camps, from before World War II began until 1945.  After the war, he escaped to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and lived there until the Israelis found him, kidnapped and brought him to Jerusalem to stand trial for his war crimes against the Jews.  Arendt originally wrote this reportage for The New Yorker; at the same time, she was assembling the reports into the book. 

One of the points raised at Eichmann's trial in 1961 repeatedly was why hadn't he helped to sabotage the transportation system to save Jewish lives?  What Arendt exposes in her reporting is that Eichmann chose not to think beyond the order he'd been given each time an order came through for a transport.  He had to negotiate with the transportation agencies in the affected countries in order to deliver the Jews to their final destination.  He had countless other tasks related to this that were his responsibility to get done and done right.  His concern at the time was to do the best job he could.  He was doing his job for the Reich and following the orders given to him by his superiors.  He didn't think about the consequences of those orders to the Jews, only to himself if he didn't follow them.

During the trial, examples were given of other Nazis who did sabotage orders in order to save Jewish lives, or to give the Jews time to escape.  In almost every instance, these people were much lower down the chain of command compared to Eichmann.  But they chose not to stand by and do nothing, they chose to consider the consequences of their actions.  They thought about what they were doing and how it affected others.

Reading this book has been fascinating, disturbing, and especially relevant right now as we watch the conflict in Syria worsen.  Video and other photographic evidence coming out of Syria showing the dead and dying after a chemical weapons attack remind me of the very worst of Saddam Hussein's reign of terror in Iraq.  He used chemical weapons on his citizens too.  President Bashar Assad has claimed that the French and Americans do not have concrete evidence of a chemical weapons attack, and he would never order such an attack on his own people.

I believe President Assad is telling the truth.  First of all, it was probably his brother (brother-in-law?) who gave the order to use chemical weapons on areas immediately outside Damascus that they believed harbored rebels.  So Bashar let someone else take the responsibility.  Second, when he says "his own people," I believe he means the Alawites which are a minority in Syria.  He is a member of this group -- his own people.  And third, the Assad regime has demonstrated that it believes it can do whatever it wants to others in order to retain power in Syria.  Could anyone in Syria stop this regime?  The rebels are trying but they are outmanned and outgunned.  At best, they could continue the conflict as an insurgency rather than a war, but they do not have the power to prevent another chemical weapons attack on civilians.

Who has the power and resources to stop another chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians?

The world usually looks to America as the sole superpower to act as law enforcement.  The use of chemical weapons is now against international law (as I understand it).  America, understandably, does not want to act alone but to have the force of united countries behind whatever action is taken.  There are countries who are actively working to prevent any action.  Some of them would prefer any action taken under the auspices of the UN or NATO.

Credit: WL Central
Meanwhile, President Assad and his regime watch and smile.  Maybe they remember another time when the world was faced with a dictator who had no qualms about gassing people and many countries chose to do nothing.  They were already fighting a war against the guy, after all, or suffering under his occupying forces.  In Arendt's book, I've learned that three countries actively and with power stood up to the Nazi forces who came to take away their Jews: Sweden, Bulgaria, and Italy. 

Who would join America and stand up with power to the Assad regime in Syria?  Who would think of the consequences of doing nothing?


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