One of the things mothers teach their children is how to react to aggression. Maybe there’s a bully in the schoolyard who threatens their walk home, there’s a sarcastic kid who makes fun of the fat kid, the short kid, the smart kid, or your kid. On the one hand, of course you want your children to be able to handle themselves. But on the other, there are rare times when you know they are in over their head, their safety is at stake, and, as their protector, you have to step in.
One of the key elements of this instruction, however, is to explain to your children that acts of aggression quickly turn into licenses. If you hit me, I can take away from that act the clear understanding that you think hitting is OK. You have just given me that license. My reaction to your strike is not the issue; your action is. This event only becomes a fight if I choose to respond in kind: you hit me and I hit you back. I taught my children to consider very carefully what license they were giving their opponent by hitting back. In fact, the worst case scenario is when both sides of a fight think fighting is OK.
In so many cases, there is a peaceful solution. You can walk away from a fight, of course. But that rarely settles the argument. It leaves the aggressor confident that similar behavior will be tolerated in the future. I hit you, you don’t hit me back, I just got away with it, and you have just lost. That is a powerful concept to hand over to an aggressor.
How this plays out as children grow up is key in understanding how wars are made. Once that license is exchanged, there really isn’t any act that is off-limits. If you hit me, I will hit harder knowing you will do so as well. If you bomb me, I will bomb bigger, and if you decide to set me up so I make foolish choices along the way, you will win in the end.
How we moved across that red line of a year ago with regard to Syria to where we are now is not surprising or shocking. If the White House did not fully expect the Syrian government to use chemical weapons on its own people, that topic would not have been addressed in such explicit terms. Nobody wants a replay of the weapons of mass destruction gambit that played out in Iraq not that long ago. Somehow, some way, the U.S. intelligence knew a year ago that chemicals were being prepared, being transported, being stored in Syria.
So the question is not, “Should the U.S. use military force in Syria now?” but rather, “Why now, when you must have known a year ago this was going to happen?” There must have been any number of times to get allies in place.
It would make sense to me, as an observer at some considerable distance, that the slow preparation for the recent chemical attacks was one of making a move, looking for a U.S. or U.N. response, making another move, looking again, then carrying out the attacks, assuming that the year-long baiting would work. We all have been moved into position, not by a poorly chosen remark in the White House briefing room about a red line, but by a calculus of another’s making. It was expected that the U.S. would attack, given sufficient provocation. That’s what we do and we’ve been set up to do so in Syria for over a year. News outlets are already on board, as they repeatedly replay the few terrible images of Syrian children coughing into cloths over their faces.
War is hell. I would choose peace always. I choose to resolve conflict without violence. And I would hate to hand over yet one more license to a schoolyard bully who would kill his own people. It is most definitely time to change the calculus. But we are well into the 21st century. We surely have the strategic capability to put an end to this disaster in Syria by using something more sophisticated and less dangerous than bombs.
Anne Born has been an editor and writer all her life. She writes poems, short stories, and personal essays on family history and her view of living in a big city after growing up in a small one. She likes an audience or she would keep her writing in her personal notebook. This embarrasses her children. She lives in the South Bronx and writes on and about the MTA – the New York City system of buses and subways. You also find her at Open Salon and Red Room, and you can follow her on Twitter at @nilesite.