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?

Town Hall Democracy?

Here’ s a recipe for debate rather than deliberation.  Throw a town hall meeting and put a politician in the middle of the room.  In that setting, the people generally come to blame and beseech.  They don’t come to do the political work of deliberation, which is to ask themselves, on whatever the issue at… Continue reading Town Hall Democracy?

The Permanent Campaign

The Obama administration’s outside arm, Organizing for America, is now adding the Sotomayor Supreme Court nomination to its roster of issues that it is calling on the American people to lobby for. We the people are being called on to help the administration pass its health care and Supreme Court battles.  These are good fights;… Continue reading The Permanent Campaign

Who are we waiting for?

During the Presidential campaign, candidate Obama invoked the language of community organizing and the civil rights movement, especially with the discourse of “yes, we can” and “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” That seemed fitting for a campaign that had a place for millions of people to take to the sidewalks and knock… Continue reading Who are we waiting for?

Engaging Citizens from the White House

The White House now has a new office of citizen participation, so it’s time to set some things straight.  First, some applause is in order.  It is high time that elected officials started paying attention to what the public has to say.  But second, a lot of caution is needed.  Who is engaging whom?  how? … Continue reading Engaging Citizens from the White House

Obama’s Pragmatism

On his blog, Requiem for Certainty, pragmatist philosopher Colin Koopman dissects Obama’s inaugural speech and finds lots of good stuff for both pragmatist philosophy and democratic politics, including the recurring pragmatist theme of hope. The inaugural address also made a pragmatist promise in another key moment.  Obama spoke of “stale political arguments” concerning the relative… Continue reading Obama’s Pragmatism

Morning in America

Now this really is morning in America.  And maybe we can get on with the work of mourning a long dark history of racism and hatred that has always worked against the American ideal of freedom and equality. I am so proud that my country elected a brilliant man, an African American, a person willing… Continue reading Morning in America

Political Illogic 101

In Philosophy 101 one of the first things we teach is logic, along with logical fallacies. Here’s the big one we’re starting to see in this presidential campaign, as well as in some comments on this very blog (especially regarding Barack’s Mother): guilt by association. According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ” Guilt by… Continue reading Political Illogic 101