In Jerusalem I watched Israeli soldiers casually frisking Arabs. Imagine – you’re at one of the most important cities in your culture and before you can take in the sights, some cocky kid with an automatic weapon is slapping your balls while searching for concealed arms. At one moment my eyes locked with one of the young men being searched. The soldier standing behind the guy held him up by his collar and nudged his legs wider apart with his boot.
“Wouldn’t you hate these bastards too?” the Arab’s glare asked.
Rushdie wrote that, “If you live in the twentieth century you do not find it hard to see yourself in those, more desperate than yourself, who seek to shape it to their will.” That goes for the twentyfirst century as well.
But targetting children? The footage coming out of the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi is painful to watch. A lot of it makes me feel physically ill, and not just because my family visited the shopping centre several times a week. It’s the same revulsion I felt when I read about the siege at Beslan in North Caucasus. It’s a guttural reaction. And it’s a proper one. There is nothing that has happened to you, your family, your clan, your tribe or your nation that warrants delibertely targetting children. Some causes are worth taking up arms for, but how a conflict is waged matters.
Before the horrors of Westgate took over the media cycle my attention was focused on whether President Obama would make good on his “red line” comments and strike the Assad regime in response to its use of chemical weapons against its own citizens. A week or so ago I had a frank conversation with a French friend on the subject.
“Who gives a shit how these people were killed? The point is they were killed. It’s a hell of a thing to discuss one means of murder as so much worse than another that it rates intervention.” Mostly I was playing devil’s advocate. But not completely. Americans are (or for Christ’s sake should be) a war weary people. The last decade was a long one.
“Still.” He replied, surprising me, “We should strike. How wars are fought matters.”
Critics tell us that the laws of war attempt to regulate the unregulatable. To some extent this is true. I’m still not convinced that a military strike could effectively put an end to the use of these types of weapons in Syria. I’m not even sure if such a strike would give the next madman with a chemical weapons stockpile at his disposal pause. But one of the thing that separates States from organizations like Al-Shabaab is the expectation of some respect for international norms. Even at my most petulant I can’t shake the belief that these norms matter and should be upheld perhaps – perhaps – even by force.
The revulsion you feel when you watch footage of a Syrian child gurgling crimson tinged vomit on a shitty hospital floor is a guttural reaction. And it’s a proper one.