The US media makes a moral case for the Syria strike. That's dangerous

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Gregory Shupak's picture
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Outlets have celebrated the US strike on Syria, glossing over major risks of prolonged war and painting US militarism as inherently good

When the US accused the Syrian government of carrying out a chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun and then bombed Syria's Shayrat air base, the secular priesthood in the US media praised the supposed morality of the US air strikes.

The New Yorker, for example, describes the "moral case" for bombing Syria as "uncontroversial". The editors of the Washington Post write that the attack on Syria "was right as a matter of morality".

In the same paper, Michael Gerson frames the bombing as a moral imperative: "When a president sees the corpses of Syrian children, he is by no means helpless. When some moral norms are violated, it is not only the perpetrator who incurs responsibility; it is the bystanders as well. It seems that Trump felt this burden."

The New York Times' editors? "It was hard not to feel some sense of emotional satisfaction, and justice done when American cruise missiles struck an airfield in Syria," they contend.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof argues that the air strikes "were of dubious legality. They were hypocritical. They were impulsive. They may have had political motivations. They create new risks for the United States. But most of all, they were right."

He does pause to wonder how Trump can be apparently moved by suffering of babies at Khan Sheikhoun while also trying to ban Syrians from entering the US. "Yet I'd rather Trump inconsistently do the right thing than consistently do the wrong thing," he concludes.

In a New York Times article, On Syria Attack, Trump's Heart Came First, Trump is portrayed as a man deeply moved to do the right thing - "anguished" and moved by empathy - by footage from Khan Sheikhoun. 

The unstated assumption in all of these articles? American militarism is intrinsically good. It's a rhetoric about the moral necessity of US wars that is as dangerous as it is untrue.

Glossing over risks

Capitalist states are not moral agents. They act on the basis of the political and economic considerations of their ruling class. In the context of heightened US-Russia tensions over Russia, the stocks of US weapons makers rallied, from which Trump personally benefited.

There is nothing moral about bombing a country out of anguish over bloodshed within its borders when there is a distinct possibility that doing so will increase the bloodshed there and beyond

If one momentarily sets that aside and indulges the pundits who are claiming that bombing Syria is a morally just action, this position collapses very quickly. It overlooks the serious risks that this course will lead to deepened American involvement in the Syrian war and sharpen US conflicts with the Syrian government and its allies Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.

These developments could make a diplomatic solution to the Syrian war even more challenging, exacerbate ongoing wars in the Middle East, and start new ones in the region and in Eastern Europe.

There is nothing moral about bombing a country supposedly out of anguish over the bloodshed within its borders when there is a distinct possibility that doing so will increase the bloodshed there and beyond. The only moral act would be to push for ceasefires and, ultimately, a negotiated solution to the war.

Even if the US bombing of the Syrian air base does not produce the disastrous effects I've described, propaganda about the supposedly noble character of American bombing campaigns helps to legitimise the US role in other wars such as the campaign against Yemen and to lay the ideological groundwork for future American wars.

Cheerleading war

Conflating American bombing campaigns with empathy, justice and moral righteousness sanitises the consequences of American war-making. American bombs blow human beings to pieces, adult and child alike, bury people alive in rubble, and inflict all manner of lifelong physical and mental health ailments.

Images of dead children our governments have killed should be no less moving than those attributed to official enemies

That was certainly the case when the US and its partners, in their parallel war against the Islamic State (IS) group, reportedly killed as many as 49 people on 16 March when they bombed a mosque in Idlib, scattering body parts and leaving victims "unrecognisable," according to a witness. Dozens of civilians are believed to be among the dead.

Five days later the US-led coalition is said to have killed at least 33, many of them civilians, in a school sheltering displaced people in Raqqa. As part of the same war, the US killed as many as 300 people, the overwhelming majority of them civilians, in a 17 March attack in Mosul, Iraq.

These deaths and injuries are scarcely less brutal than killing people with chemical weapons which, in any case, the US has used in Iraq and Syria. Images of dead children our governments have killed should be no less moving than those attributed to official enemies, and should probably be even more affective since we’re responsible for them.

Slow-motion death 

US wars also kill in slow motion by destroying economies, health systems, infrastructure, and food supplies. For example, in the devastating US-Saudi war on Yemen, America has provided cover while Saudi Arabia deliberately starves Yemenis.

Nor can the US ruling class claim innocence in the six-year war between the Syrian government and opposition groups and each sides' plethora of international backers. As the Syrian and Russian governments have committed war crimes, the US and its partners have instituted sanctions that punish the Syrian population, poured weapons into the country, helped prolong the war by stifling diplomatic initiatives, and armed and funded opposition groups that have committed serious human rights violations.

Around the world, America and its allies inflict death and injury incomparably more often and on a far larger scale than any other political force. All of that is erased by pundits bloviating about the supposed morality of American militarism.

Media outlets produce and reproduce ideology and, in this case, it's a belief in the inherent goodness of US militarism that's being curated. Presenting American warfare as moral courage instead of the mass terror that it is reinforces the notion that Western violence against Arabs and Muslims is natural and desirable, encouraging the public to acquiesce to US-led wars in the Middle East.

- Dr Greg Shupak is an author and activist who teaches Media Studies at the University of Guelph in Canada.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.      

Photo: A Syrian man and girl flee following a reported government air strike on the rebel-controlled town of Hamouria, in the eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on 4 April 2017 (AFP).

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.