Standing Vigil in Watts and Syria

When the Watts riots broke out in 1965, the woman who was to become my mother-in-law 27 years later gathered together a group of Quaker women to stand vigil outside the barricades that the LAPD had erected around the neighborhood.  For days they stood in a line peacefully outside the barricades, taking turns in shifts, witnessing what was occurring and trying, in the process, to minimize the violence.  If they had not been there, surely even more blood would have been spilled.

Syria reminds me of this daily.  We have all been witnessing the atrocities, but at a comfortable distance while the Syrian people have been routinely brutalized, gassed, and murdered. This is not a civil war, but a barbaric attack by a leader against his own people. As Yassin al-Haj Saleh writes in today’s New York Times, “Here in Syria, there is a regime that has been killing its subjects with impunity for the last 30 months.”

In his speech tonight the President said, “We seek to ensure that the worst weapons will not be used.”  Well, I don’t see any real difference in dying by gunshot, fire, or poison gas.  Killing is killing. That Obama is moved to do something only when the “red line” of the use of sarin has been amply demonstrated is terribly disappointing.  Isn’t a red line crossed when an elementary school is bombed with napalm? When rape becomes a weapon of war?  What’s the point of “reprimanding” a tyrant for using one kind of death machine rather than another? I’m all for the Russian plan to get Syria to divest itself of its chemical weapons, but what about all the other weapons? And what of the total illegitimacy of this regime?

I am ashamed that we in the rest of the world have stood by, paralyzed by cowardice or trepidation, for all this time while the government of Bashar al-Assad has brutalized and killed thousands every month. But I also understand and share the worry over going to yet another war.

So might there be a nonviolent alternative — something akin to the line of Quaker women standing watch?  That might mean sending in UN “peacekeepers,” though that is still very militaristic and might not be the only viable option.  What if we civilians, pouring in from the civil societies of the world, took up watch inside of Syria, just as so many journalists have tried to do?  We need to stand closer.

What’s to keep a dictator from killing those standing watch?  Very little.  But is there any other decent alternative? Can we claim to be a really human race when we fail to be humane, when we stand by helplessly?

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.

1 comment

  1. Noelle, I love this. I love the idea of thousands of people making their way to Syria from around the world to just observe and stand tall. I’m glad to hear an option proposed other than “send missiles” and “turn the other way.” Civilian peacekeepers, or peacewatchers (without the quotation marks). I don’t know that it would change the behavior of a mad dictator, but I guess if we knew how to do that someone would have done it by now. It’s worth considering.

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