Dear Obama: please consider revisiting Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, Emma Lazarus’s poetry, and — oh yeah — the fact that you won a Nobel PEACE prize.

by Nicole Plyler Fisk


I’ve been reading a lot about the Syrian crisis. I even made the mistake of flipping through a slideshow detailing the aftermath of the chemical attack in August. A disclaimer warned that the images were “graphic,” but I found myself wishing that they had been more explicit in their labeling (i.e. “graphic: dead children”). I have yet to work up the nerve to watch the video in full, although I have seen devastating clips.

I do not think that we can stand idly by, to quote Elie Wiesel, in the face of such atrocities. But I agree with David Sirota, who, in his article “4 Essential Questions Before We Rush to War,” validates the “do something, anything” response while reminding us that a military attack is not the only “something” we can do:

“[T]he human rights atrocities in Syria are real, and should be offensive and horrifying to anyone with a pulse. So the ‘do something, anything!’ impulse isn’t ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative.’ And it isn’t silly, stupid or war-mongering. It is simply a sign that you are human.

What can be silly, stupid and war-mongering is to assume that the ‘do something, anything!’ impulse is proof that one course of action — a military attack — is the only proper or humane thing to do.”

Given our recent history (i.e. Obama’s five-year Middle Eastern drone war in which an estimated 500-800 innocent civilians have died) I have serious doubts about whether or not a military attack against Syria even qualifies as “proper” or “humane.” As my friend, Phil, pointed out in a recent Facebook status: “I just question whether precise and surgical violence is even a thing. If anything in the world has unpredictable consequences, it’s a bomb.”

One civilian casualty is too many; and, when it’s on our own soil, we seem to understand this. When pursuing the Boston Marathon bombers in April, we were indeed precise and surgical. Can you imagine if we had bombed the area where the terrorists were hiding? We didn’t consider that an option, and rightly so. If the terrorists are on other soil, though, we are much more indiscriminate (e.g. consider another bombing in April, in the Kunar province of eastern Afghanistan, that left 10 children and 2 women dead).

If there is anything I’ve learned from teaching both the Harry Potter and The Hunger Games series in the college classroom, it’s that repaying violence with violence threatens our humanity. This is nowhere more eloquently expressed than Book 7 of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, when Harry finds himself in the middle of a full-fledged war against Lord Voldemort and is criticized for using a nonlethal disarming spell against his attackers. His mentor, Lupin, scolds “Harry, the time for Disarming is past! These people are trying to capture and kill you! At least Stun if you aren’t prepared to kill!”

Harry replies, “I won’t blast people out of my way just because they’re there . . . That’s Voldemort’s job.” Although Harry’s penchant for mercy becomes, as Lupin explains, his “signature move” and therefore makes him more vulnerable to recognition and capture, Harry knows that the alternative — becoming unrecognizable to both others and himself by employing lethal force — is a much more frightening and sinister option.

[SPOILER: Mockingjay, Part 2] By the end of The Hunger Games series, Katniss realizes that District 13’s rebel leader, President Coin, is as corrupt as the Capitol’s President Snow. And, to her horror, she understands that the great evil she’s spent her life trying to prevent (i.e. her sister’s murder) comes to pass, because the rebels — in their fight against the violent monsters of the Capitol — become violent monsters themselves, relentlessly devoted to “winning,” even when their own are caught in the crosshairs. 

This week, Jon Stewart returned to The Daily Show after a summer hiatus and sharply criticized the President for recommending a military attack against Syria, not because it would make the situation better (see: “Military Experts Cautious about Effectiveness of a US Attack On Syria”) but because the President does not want to seem weak. Stewart plays a montage of people, like Paul Bremer (former US Ambassador in Iraq), cautioning the President against “weakness” before exploding: “Oh, right. We have to bomb Syria because we’re in 7th grade . . . Why does holding back look like weakness? Isn’t it maturity? It’s like when a guy is picking on Clark Kent and he doesn’t do anything even though he knows he can throw that guy into the sun.”

Strength can and should be dissociated from violence.  We should condemn Assad’s actions. We should consider, as Sarah Van Gelder explains, “strengthening the ability of the ICC [International Criminal Court] to hold war criminals accountable by signing on and ratifying the statute that created the court in 1998” and/or “calling for a United Nations embargo on arms, military supplies, and logistical support for both Damascus and opposition forces.” In short, there are ways to hold Assad accountable and deter war crimes other than military strikes.

But: perhaps most importantly, we should focus our energy and funnel our resources into aid for the refugees and those assisting them [note: them = not only the refugees but also the civilians (or wanna-be refugees) still trying to get out of Syria]. According to UNHCR, Syrian refugees have topped 2 million with more on the way.

If only America were known less for military attacks and more for Emma Lazarus’s words, inscribed on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” (By the way: my husband, Scott, thinks that we should establish a nonviolent branch of the military dedicated to aid, kind of like the Peace Corps but with all the organization/resources of the US military.)

Let’s speak such words of Lazarus-like comfort to the Syrian people, rather than words of violence to mad men. The latter can be in charge of a country of themselves, while we help those in need and refuse to play with the bullies — lest we become bullies too.

P.S. And, maybe, we’ll become so energized by helping the Syrian children that we’ll be able to remember “all the children,” as Charles Blow enjoins, and help end the atrocities of hunger and poverty and gun violence too.

P.P.S. If you decide to play with the bullies, President Obama, Kirsten Powers suggests you may want to consider returning that Nobel Peace Prize. Actually, she thinks you should return it already, b/c of all those drones. Personally, I think Narayanan Krishnan should get every good-person award available, including most Nobels.