President Obama’s speech on Tuesday night regarding his decision on American involvement in Syria
Memories typically soften with time into nostalgia, but 9/11 evokes a grim mess of memories — of plumes of smoke and tears sloppily redrawing faces and TV screens flickering hollowly at a numb and silenced people. The memories resist the casual, softening pull of time and are instead steeped and hardened in tragedy.
The anniversary of the horrific day has come unwanted, tail hanging between its legs, for 12 years, and each year, the American people have shown profound strength in their unity and ability to move forward, in their determination to remember and honor those who died.
On Sept. 11, 2001, just shy of 3,000 people died. Each one had a father or a little sister or a wacky uncle or a soulmate. Each one had an awkward eighth-grade school picture or a tendency to overcook his spaghetti or a penchant for mauve dusks. Stories riddled their skin and packed the insides of their cheeks; each one was hauntingly beautiful in his or her intricacy.
And this is why America will never forget the tragedy of 9/11. Death elucidates our vision; it makes us see people for who they have always been: stunning, complex enigmas, impossible to forget, each one trailing stories behind them as they go and pressing their temporary tattoo legacy on the world. Flawed, inevitably, but magnificent nonetheless. We place ourselves in their shoes, in their families’ shoes, and it’s impossible not to feel a profound grief for the people whose stories were casually shut with disregard to their endings.
Americans are incredible at this compassion and clarity in the wake of a national tragedy, at appreciating the value of an American life.
What we can’t seem to muster is the decency to value any other human life.
President Obama gave a speech on his response to the situation in Syria on Tuesday. Afterwards, I watched the videos of the chemical attacks in Syria he’d referenced in his speech.
They were the most profoundly horrific things I have ever seen.
They show men and women convulsing on the ground, foaming at the mouth, lurching pupils contracting to pinpoints. I saw them violently dislodged from the great tragedy of life, chaos and lifeless bodies the final film on their absent-minded eyes. The worst part, inevitably, was the children. The boy in the bright red shirt jerking unnaturally on the ground, the doll-faced two-year-old with useless eyes and a useless oxygen mask, the room blanketed with bodies of young children, still brightly-clothed in some dark brand of irony.
The videos nauseated me. There were 13, and I had to stop multiple times to get through them. They weren’t terribly graphic; it was the pathetic, disgusting state of a humanity that could do this that was making me physically ill. I didn’t think I would ever be more disgusted with humanity than I was in that moment.
It didn’t take long for that delusion to be shattered – maybe another five minutes.
It stumbled and collapsed as I read through the YouTube comments on Obama’s speech, as I read through the comments on articles about the speech, as I came to school and listened to people talking about Syria.
And then I realized that this, now, was when I’d never be more disgusted in humanity – in Americans.
Almost every comment – written or spoken – said the same, horrible things: “Why should we care? What has the Middle East ever done to deserve our help? Why should we stick our necks out for them when we have ourselves to help? They’re not our problem. It’s not our job to take care of them. It’s not our job to care about them.”
At some point, the blackened, venomous words began to bleed into each other, all writhing in a flood of hatred and bigotry.
I cannot fathom how we can be so callous about Syria.
Over 100,000 humans have been killed in the two-and-a-half year war in Syria. 100,000 is a number so appallingly large none of us can even begin to comprehend it. It is more than 33 times what we lost 12 years ago. 9/11 was tragic, but it happened in a matter of hours, and then it was over. War and oppression, determined to suffocate the Syrian people until spots of black dance in their visions, have ravaged Syria for two-and-a-half years. Americans say time stopped on 9/11, but for the Syrians, the slow, painful procession of time refuses to cease.
We demand the utmost respect for the 3,000 lost 12 years ago. And those people we lost and that fateful day deserve it. But it is being thrown into grim question whether Americans deserve it.
In the face of a global tragedy whose scope and pain is currently unparalleled, Americans had a chance to show their true colors, and those colors are emerging as cruel and selfish, lacking in empathy and compassion. We may not know what to do politically, we may not believe in American intervention, but we have been given no reason to be horrible people.
Every Syrian life is worth just as much as one of our own, and by that measure, the Syrians deserve the utmost reverence from the world – not only because of the magnitude of the calamity that has befallen them, but because they have had every odd stacked against them for the past two-and-a-half years, and yet the Syrians continue, with incredible reserves of strength and perseverance, to fight for liberty and quality-of-life – a struggle we, of all people, should understand the importance of. And we have failed to respect that. Instead, we demean them, diminish the importance of their struggle, mock them with our indifferent words.
There are over 100,000 Syrians we will never know, the undersides of their skin lined with stories. Look closely and you can still catch traces of their stories in the curves – the scar puckering the curve of a wrist, the wrinkles deepened with the slow curve of a final smile, the weathered arches of brave feet. Just like our 3,000, the 100,000 had soul mates and cooking misadventures and inexplicable penchants for the aggressive way violet light will sometimes flood the sky, and perhaps the greatest tragedy of human existence is that we will never be able to intimately know every one of the beautiful, intricate stories of these beautiful, intricate people.
Or perhaps the greatest tragedy is that we don’t want to know.
Either way, it is the absolute least we can do to show the Syrians the respect we show ourselves, or if that’s impossible, to at least fake it. In this situation, honesty about hateful opinions is neither appropriate nor warranted. I would also encourage everyone to watch the available footage of the chemical attack; it’s difficult to get through, but ignorance and willful blindness are what make it easy to be callous about these people, as if they’re not really people at all.
The situation in Syria and America’s political role in it are complicated. I don’t have the answer – I doubt anyone does. But it doesn’t matter. I am not making a political statement; I am simply making a passionate plea for human compassion.
By Urmila Kutikkad