[This image of some of the 108 Syrians killed in Houla last year did not garner the same international outrage as the mid-August gas attack, why? asks Masuma Rahim]
By Masuma Rahim
The morality of war is fascinating. For most of my adult life, the UK has been at war, primarily in the Middle East. As I write this, Parliament has just voted against a motion to launch a strategic air strike in the region by a slim majority and opinion also seems to be sharply divided on social media.
More and more, it seems that we have particular beliefs about war and what it justifies. It’s unthinkable that the atomic bomb would have been dropped in a peacetime situation, but for some reason it was acceptable to do it twice in three days in the summer of 1945, even though the long-term consequences were known.
Syria has been in the throes of civil war for two years and 100,000 have died, half of them civilians. Four million have been displaced inside the country. Globally, we did nothing.
Then, in mid-August, someone used nerve gas, killing some 600. Suddenly, the rest of the world thinks Something Must Be Done. Why? Why is it suddenly a Bad thing that Syria is at war with itself, why is it suddenly a Good thing that we get involved? Why are photos of a row of dead children worse than the rows of dead men, women and children which have been filling the homes and cities of that shattered country for the past 30 months? Why is it Bad for Arabs to kill tens of children but Not Bad for Western drones to kill equal numbers of children in Pakistan?
Many will suggest that there are other agendas at play, but agendas are for politicians. The layperson is probably more concerned about events on the ground. I suspect that much of our hesitation in intervening is that the memories of the second Gulf war are too fresh and the scars too raw.
Most of us have been horrified by the images we have seen and the stories we have heard. But why does the use of nerve gas spur us to action when the relative monotony of ’100,000 dead’ didn’t? And how can we possibly take the moral high ground when it transpires that Britain sold precursor chemicals, capable of making nerve gas, to the Syrian regime in 2012?
I don’t know what conditions need to be fulfilled before I would feel justified in launching an attack on a sovereign state. Nor do I know how I would be able to argue that my conditions would be superior to yours. And of course sometimes you act too late and regret that you didn’t do so earlier. If the situation in Syria escalates and a million die will I then demand we go in? Will my rage over Western paternalism and shouts of ’21st century colonialism’ pale in comparison? I don’t know. And perhaps that’s the problem.
The death and destruction is terrible; I know that. And it can’t continue. I know that also. I just don’t know how to stop it, or if we even have the right to take it upon ourselves to try to do so.