Revenge, or fear of it, must not lead Syria to chemical warfare

President Obama and other world leaders must speak directly to both Assad and rebel leader about avoiding revenge killings. That is necessary to prevent escalation of the war with chemical weapons.

AP Photo
President Barack Obama, speaking Tuesday at a news conference, said there was evidence that chemical weapons had been used in Syria but that the US doesn't know when or who used them.

 The world has good reason not to ignore the recent use of chemical weapons in Syria. If such a destructive and indiscriminate method of killing were used for massive revenge – or even out of fear of revenge – it would greatly reverse humanity’s progress toward keeping this crude instinct in check.

A killing on the scale of thousands of civilians done in retribution would not only be inhumane; it would also represent a wholesale embrace of a primal state of human behavior. For that reason, President Obama and other world leaders can do something now in Syria short of armed intervention.

They can use moral persuasion and remind the Assad regime – as well as rebels who kill out of spite – that a lust for revenge is a futile emotion, one that modern societies have learned to supplant with higher concepts of justice. Such an appeal by the global community would lay the moral groundwork for stronger action if it fails.

Over the two years of this civil war, massacres of civilians have become more prevalent, committed mainly by armed forces allied with President Bashar al-Assad. Often the motive is revenge, meted out on entire neighborhoods or villages for a previous attack by rebels. This has set up a cycle of tit-for-tat violence or a rising fear of return killing. This cannot now drive a dangerous escalation of the war by the use of a weapon of mass destruction.

The country’s minority Alawites, a sect of Islam that has dominated Syria under two generations of Assads, fear being slaughtered by the majority Sunnis if the government falls. To their credit, the political leaders in Syria’s pro-democracy movement – mainly Sunni or secular – have vowed not to seek revenge against the Alawite population. They have welcomed Alawite defectors to their ranks. This is a noble stance, given that the late Hafez al-Assad leveled the city of Hama in 1982, killing tens of thousands of Sunnis out of revenge for opposing the regime. Reports indicated his forces used poisonous gas.

Revenge may have an accepted place in some tribal societies or between clans as a way to restore honor and as a form of deterrence. But governments have largely taken over the role of meting out justice. And major religions have helped people to master vengeful feelings and replace them with such ideas as forgiveness, mercy, and compassion. This progress has even led modern courts to order violent offenders to take “anger management” classes.

One result, as historians note, has been a centuries-long decline in violence. And much of popular culture, from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” to the movie “Django,” now repeats the morality tale of humans coming to grips with the murderous impulses of revenge.

Now such a tale is playing out as a reality show in Syria. And the world has a chance to influence the ending. With one loud voice, it should call out those in Syria who would act in revenge and let them know that deadly grudge matches aren’t the future for humanity. They also hinder the chance for reconciliation among Syrians.

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