Is an American life worth more than a Syrian life?

More specifically, do we, as Americans, value the lives of people inside our country more than those of people outside it?

And this question isn’t exclusive to our society. Now that we live in a hyper-connected world, it’s an increasingly significant philosophical debate in international relations. Ignorance is no longer an excuse for failure to act, as nearly every violent conflict receives coverage in some way, testing our concern for other people.

Even as the Syrian civil war continues mercilessly claiming lives of fighters and civilians alike — the most recent estimates are at about 70,000 deaths — the international reaction is tepid. Echoing this sentiment, the Syrian National Coalition, a collection of anti-government militias, announced that they would no longer attend diplomatic conferences to end the conflict due to the international community’s toothless reactions.

Though the United States, the European Union and the Arab League have given the Syrian rebels communications and humanitarian aid, Syrians want weapons and training.

“We want the U.S. to help the people on the ground,”said Adib Shishakly, a Syrian National Coalition member.

Are we morally obligated to intervene militarily in Syria? The American national identity revolves around the belief that we’re on the right side. Though that’s been proven false on more occasions than we’d like to admit, Americans are ever steadfast in their conviction that the world is theirs to improve — facts be damned. The United States is John Winthrop’s “city upon a hill.” We are manifest destiny and American exceptionalism, right? Isn’t it an easy decision to sacrifice ourselves so that the Syrian government ends its repressive reign?

Not quite. Our history in the Middle East complicates the decision a bit. We’ve supported oppressive dictators like the Shah and Hosni Mubarak. We armed Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, only to have them harbor Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden, making us wary of arming a band of rebels again. And we ‘installed democracy’ in Afghanistan and Iraq, a quixotic dream that has proven incredibly costly and divisive.

But Syria seems different. Whereas arming the Taliban represented the fight against communism, Cold War rhetoric doesn’t inform Bashar al-Assad’s decisions. He only wants to retain power for himself and his followers, and will kill anyone in his way. Intervention seems to be less of a political decision and more of a moral one this time around.

When I hear about killings and destruction in Syria, I know that I don’t want our government to send any Americans into that warzone. It pains me to admit, but I do value an American life more than a Syrian one. My blood runs red like every other human being on this planet, but it seems the man-made construct that labels me American trumps the human bonds that we all share.

It feels callous to voice this sentiment so publicly, but I’m not alone. For as long as countries have existed, good people have failed to act in the face of evil, simply because “it wasn’t their problem,” thus becoming accessories to the crimes.

That is why I struggle so mightily with my own beliefs. As a Jewish person, I’ve spent countless moments of my life lamenting the inaction that allowed the Holocaust to happen, and it’s difficult to reconcile that belief with my thoughts about Syria.

Elie Wiesel famously said, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” I absolutely agree with him. But what about encouraging killing? I oppose direct intervention because I don’t want to see any Americans die, but if I support arming the rebels, and by extension, the killing of more people, is that right?

By the same token, can we call ourselves humane while the international community sits idly by, watching and reporting the massacres? And at what point does an ‘armed conflict’ become genocide? The opposition and forces loyal to the regime are both mowing each other down pretty efficiently — does that mean the rebels don’t need our help?

I don’t have answers to these questions, and I don’t think anybody really does. I support arming the rebels, if only to pick a side, but haven’t the slightest idea of whether that move will come back to haunt us. One thing I am sure of is that the blood of 70,000 Syrians drips from Assad’s fingertips. Adding fuel to the fire and guns to the fight will also add names to the casualty lists — that’s a fact — but if we are to help the victim and not the oppressor, we must eventually make some fatally difficult decisions.

Andrew Eckhous can be reached at aeckhous@umich.edu.

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