Syria, Affliction, and Simone Weil

Syria If you do not help us, we will be killed

Alessio Romenzi/AFP/Getty

(T)he afflicted are not listened to. They are like someone whose tongue has been cut out and who occasionally forgets the fact. When they move their lips no ear perceives any sound. And they themselves soon sink into impotence in the use of language, because of the certainty of not being heard. – Simone Weil “Human Personality” 1943

The issues surrounding the Syria conflict are simpler than many of us want to imagine. Maybe the simplicity is hard to imagine given the human suffering and death that continues to pile on.

In between political leaders playing “chicken” on the international highway, stand innocent lives waiting to be crushed. While that happens they are being gassed and tortured on either side. The international political community is not so much concerned about their welfare as to what the violence means to strategic advantage.

President Obama first threatened to execute strikes before congressional approval. This was the infamous “red line.” Knowing that congress was rife with war hawks who are not afraid to bomb a potential threat, he wanted to catch Congress with its pants down. Someone needed to take the blame for an already botched policy and both Obama and congress have been playing that game since day one of his presidency. This turned out to be a political failure.

The United States needs to keep the oil pipelines and Israel safe. Without a safe Israel, the United States is weaker in the Middle East. Vladimir Putin’s plea to the American people for the United  States to work with the United Nations was not as amicable as it sounded. Syria is a strategic place for Russia just as is Iran: Protect the borders and make use of Tartus for both trade and military presence in the Mediterranean. There is territory and money at stake in Syria and all of these external forces want that land for one reason or another.

We might be more comfortable saying that intervention and death are more complicated than that when faced with religious and political whips indiscriminately flailing in school yards. But the reality does not care about the complexity of the causes.

Every conflict is about balancing the scales of self-interest. It’s just willed ignorance to think otherwise. So Putin is right, there is no such thing as “American exceptionalism” but for an over-inflated ego. However, there is no such thing as “Russian exceptionalism” either. As long as people who have no real skin in the game aren’t needlessly killed by the power-hungry lobbing missiles at them, who really cares who “wins” that game? Let’s be pragmatic, not ideological.

The French philosopher and theologian Simone Weil (1909-1943) had an incisive grasp of the simplicity of world power, how it behaves, and what it does to people who have no power to control it. For her, there was a certain limit to the force in the world that the powerful can use to assert their will on others. There are times in history when some of these actors wield more power than others. Her line of sight was on the German armies that occupied France.

The victims of force are the afflicted. One who is afflicted is totally dehumanized, has lost a will to do much of anything, and most importantly, has lost the ability to be human. Humanity is defined by its ability to receive what is good and beautiful whose source is God. She sums up her notion of force from her essay, The Iliad, or the Poem of Force with these poignant and powerful words:

The true hero, the true subject, the centre of the Iliad, is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away. In this work at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relation to force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to.

So there is another side to force. Those who wield it are eventually damaged. No human power can possibly control the weight of the force in the world. Its sum is too much for anyone to bear. Empires crumble with the delusion of world domination.

In the predicament of Syria, Egypt, and many nations on the great continent of Africa we see force and self-interest of the powerful killing people. If those who have the power to save the people enslaved by force only use that power to satisfy self-interest, who will dry the tears and mop up the blood of the afflicted?

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