A Different Kind of Attention Deficit: Selective Attention and Syria

By Nathan Nye

Protest Outside the White House, June 2012 by Nathan Nye

Last weekend I was in Washington, DC. It was a hot day, and the heaviness in the air drove home the point that the District really is a swamp town. As I was walking toward my Metro station I heard shouts ringing through the thick air. I was nearing the White House, and those shouts could only be one thing—a protest.

I crossed the street to the brick-paved way in front of the White House and realized I had only been half-right. It was two protests—one pro-intervention in Syria, and one against.

I weaved in and out of the people of many ethnicities with many beliefs holding signs, waving fists, shouting chants, and clutching Syrian flags. There were probably around 200 people there actively protesting or who had been sucked up into the fervor. Since then numbers have grown, and the anti-intervention protest alone is up to 500 people.

This wasn’t a new thing. On my first day living in D.C. as an intern last summer, I took a route for shopping that took me past the White House in order to soak up the grandeur of living in America’s political Mecca.  There I witnessed a crowd of maybe a dozen, again, holding Syrian flags (picture above).  While it hasn’t been consistently in our newsfeeds for very long, the civil war in Syria is no longer young.

The Syrian conflict has lasted almost two and half years. But, the United States is now considering involvement publicly for the first time, because last week it was reported that Assad-government forces were using chemical weapons. Both President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have made impassioned pleas to disrupt military capabilities in the country in retaliation for killing non-combatants and using chemical weapons that killed over 1400 civilians including 426 children. This is horrific and absolutely a war crime. Rightfully, it’s getting a lot of attention.

What’s not getting a lot of attention is that those deaths represent less than 2% of the total casualties in Syria’s tumultuous war. On all sides there are ethical dilemmas to be weighed, which are informed by often competing interests. The conversation about intervention or non-action have been the central debate in the media over the past few days, and will continue to be, but what’s not getting talked about is our reason for this debate—chemical weapons.

The pro-intervention argument hinges on the belief that chemical attacks as an internationally outlawed weapon are a red line that requires action. There are different arguments and combinations of arguments supporting this.

  1. They are internationally banned, and so it gives the international community a right to intervene.
  2. They are more likely to be used against or accidently kill civilians, which is a moral imperative to act against the perpetrators.
  3. They pose a security threat to the United States and the utilitarian thing to do is destroy Syria’s capability to use chemical weapons.

My question is if these arguments are a strong enough to eclipse the one that earlier proponents of action were making—Over 100,000 people have died in this conflict from damage inflicted by both the Assad regime and rebels.

I think it’s important to break down the “why” of intervention. Is it because lives are at stake? The answer would seemingly be no. Is it because we care about international treaties? Maybe.

It’s a lot more complicated than that. As Kenan faculty council member and Professor of Philosophy David Wong says in an essay, “Decisive action, especially when it takes the form of violence against others, can be easier to undertake when we are willing to exercise selective attention to support the rightness of what we are doing and at the same time deny that we are exercising selective attention.” We’re using the evidence of chemical weapons as an absolute red line while eschewing the recent events in this conflict that might also merit action.

How do you morally weigh methods of killing? How many deaths are too many deaths? Is there a moral way to even engage in this ultimately crude and insensitive thought process? These are the thoughts that have been blazing through my head since walking past those protests days ago, and I’m still grappling with them.

If you’re interested in exploring questions like this, check out the Duke Human Rights Center at the Kenan Institute for Ethics for other complicated international human rights quandaries. The essay mentioned can be found in Naming Evil, Judging Evil a book on the concept of evil in modern society edited by Kenan Faculty Professor Ruth Grant.