“We are 15 of the last doctors serving the remaining 300,000 citizens of eastern Aleppo.”
So begins the Syrian doctors’ open letter to President Obama, now well known; a last appeal for help before Aleppo and all its occupants fall to the surrounding violence.
Two months later, the world is watching as Aleppo’s situation worsens daily, horrified as bomb after bomb falls, increasingly disturbed as the casualties pile up. In America, the Syrian capital has entered the presidential debates – acting as a PR block for Johnson, and condemning the Republican and Democratic nominees from their own mouths.
No one in my generation has ever known peace.No one in my generation has ever known peace. We have all grown up in a constant state of war. I don’t know what peace feels like; how it feels to not be sending out troops to face their deaths; how it feels for my country to be calm instead of always in a fight; and this is true for all Millennials in every country. The entire world has been at constant war for a quarter of a century. Peace agreements are shaky, every country is suspicious and suspect, and the air is nervous. The idea of peace seems as tangible to millennials as the idea of living on Mars.
Non-interventionism is a belief that inviting ourselves to become involved in other people’s business will only aggravate the problem. It’s an idea that such violent politics will harm, not help.
Some people take this to the level of isolationism: we should not be involved in anyone’s business, in any way, ever. We should just keep to ourselves, focus on our own prosperity without touching anyone else’s stuff, and if no one touches anyone, we’ll all be fine.
Putting aside the obvious hindrances that would place on travel, trade, and the economy, that philosophy ignores something else vital: the fact that we have a responsibility to other people.
Responsibility to Intervene
That responsibility is often cited as a reason to go to war: we must protect people, therefore we need to kill people. That’s the stance both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have taken, and it’s the position they reaffirmed in the public debate. It’s also widely acknowledged that that responsibility is merely used as an excuse so we can go to war for another reason; namely, to protect our interests in commercial goods and resources.
Our responsibility to other people is often cited as a reason to go to war: we must protect people, therefore we need to kill people.In the end, it’s often a confusing conglomerate of reasons, but the result leads to a psychological connection between “mess” and “intervention,” regardless of intent. This can lead people to think that all intervention will result in a violent mess, thus catalyzing a run to the total isolation extreme – even in medical emergencies such as the one currently unfolding in Aleppo. Members of the public flutter about, flapping their hands, saying, “People are dying and we should help, but if we help we’ll make it worse.”
Meanwhile, the government will say “it’s complicated,” like it’s a high school relationship. Sending support for even one single isolated person can be seen as a political declaration of loyalty for one side and, necessarily, a hostility towards the other. Never mind that we’ve already declared loyalty to the civilians of Syria.
In fact, that very loyalty has been one of the reasons – if not the reason – for the state of affairs in Aleppo. American military intervention has allowed US weapons, tactics, and training strategies into the hands of the very people we’re fighting. The attempted overthrow of Syria’s ruler is creating a vacuum, déjà vu of both Iraq and Libya. No wonder people are caught bouncing between interventionism and isolationism.
Meanwhile in Washington
After the doctor’s letter was published, the White House stated that it was aware of the doctors’ letter and the situation. As a senior administration official said, “We commend the bravery of medical professionals across Syria who are working every day in perilous circumstances with minimal supplies to save lives,” and they are “working with the United Nations and engaging with Russia to find a diplomatic approach to reducing the violence and allowing humanitarian assistance into the city.”
In other words, at the time of their response, the White House was saying that it could take a month before any kind of a decision is even made on whether to help or not, and as the doctors write in their letter, “there is an attack on a medical facility every 17 hours. At this rate, our medical services in Aleppo could be completely destroyed in a month, leaving 300,000 people to die.”
Fully two months later, nothing has been done, and the carnage is worse than ever. The memory of the little boy in the ambulance that tore our hearts has been lost in the dozens that have been seen since.
The doctors have asked for something to be done to stop the violence, yes. But their immediate concern is for the lives of those already injured. A lifeline for medical support needs to be established, and that doesn’t need to take a lot of time.
This is not an issue of political intervention. It’s an issue that transcends politics and the well-meant yet fear-based desire to keep to ourselves. Keeping people alive is our primary responsibility as people. If we can’t step up and assist these desperate doctors risking their lives for those civilians still alive, how can we expect to take care of ourselves in our isolation?
Every single one of these scenarios has involved the word “we.” We want things to happen, but if we do them, we’ll ruin everything.
Who is “we”?
It’s an ambiguous term that’s used interchangeably to describe both the populace and the government. We the people want things, but if the government does them, it will ruin everything.
Too often, we the populace have an overall idea that if we want something to happen, the government needs to be the one to do it. So we raise a row until the government is annoyed enough to say that they’ll do something about it, and then the thing either gets purposely dropped or lost in the maze of bureaucracy. And then we whine again.
What if we the people skipped the middle bureaucrats and just accomplished what we wanted to happen?But what if we separated the two “we,” not just in linguistics, but in our minds? What if we the people skipped the middle bureaucrats and just accomplished what we wanted to happen?
Privately funded hospitals, schools, charities, etc. do everything the government funded ones do, and do it better. The same applies to the medical emergency in Syria – Doctors Without Borders (MSF) is already there. In fact, theirs was one of the pediatric hospitals bombed in the last month. All we – the people or the government – need to do is supply funding, and MSF can organize the rest. No military or government personnel, no equipment, no infrastructure to organize. Nothing but a money transfer. That’s it.
There is an irony in this that underscores the need to intervene humanely but not violently: one year ago, in October 2015, US forces accidentally bombed an MSF hospital in Afghanistan, killing 42 people. Perhaps a government funding of MSF in Aleppo can partially make up for this horrific mistake, at least as far as such a thing can be made up, but we would not be wise to wait for the government’s action. Like the White Helmets of Aleppo, we the people should be taking this war, its casualties, and the chance for peace, into our own hands.
“Despite the horror, we choose to be here. We took a pledge to help those in need,” the doctors wrote. We did the same when we rose to the ability to help people in situations such as these.
This first appeared at the author's blog.