When historians write about President Trump, they may ask what made him suddenly feel so responsible in early 2017 for the “beautiful babies” killed in Syria by chemical weapons. During the 2016 campaign, he seemed indifferent toward the slaughter of Syria’s most innocent. But as president, after seeing images from an attack and realizing what power he had to prevent future attacks, Mr. Trump felt accountable if he did not act.
The killing of more than 80 civilians, he said, “had a big impact on me – big impact.” So he ordered the launch of cruise missiles on select aircraft facilities in Syria. His ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said the president’s response was designed not only to protect the United States from these kinds of indiscriminate weapons but also to safeguard the rest of humanity.
Trump’s epiphany is hardly unique in the globalized age in which we live. It is far easier to know of distant atrocities, especially if one is a president with a vast intelligence service but also through the ubiquity of cameras. And it is far easier to do something about wrongdoing, especially if a country can project its influence and military might within hours. Because we know more of the human condition, and we can do something about it, we also feel more responsible – perhaps even guilty. Indifference is becoming less and less an option.
This phenomenon is aptly described in a much-discussed article, “The Strange Persistence of Guilt,” by University of Oklahoma historian Wilfred McClay in the spring issue of the academic journal The Hedgehog Review. He describes how modernity’s ceaselessly expanding capacity to comprehend and control the physical world has also expanded our potential moral responsibility.
“I can see pictures of a starving child in a remote corner of the world on my television, and know for a fact that I could travel to that faraway place and relieve that child’s immediate suffering, if I cared to. I don’t do it, but I know I could,” he writes. This creates the pervasive need to have one’s innocence affirmed through some sort of absolution and redemption. He explains: “In a world of relentlessly proliferating knowledge, there is no easy way of deciding how much guilt is enough, and how much is too much.”
Trump’s shift of thought about Syria reflects a wider shift in geopolitical thinking. Again, Mr. McClay explains: “The heightened moral awareness we now bring to international affairs is something new in human history, stemming from the growing social and political pluralism of Western democracies and the unprecedented influence of universalized norms of human rights and justice, supported and buttressed by a robust array of international institutions and nongovernmental organizations....”
Just what the US and its allies do now, such as negotiating a truce and starting peace talks, depends to a degree on how people in these countries want to affirm innocence. Guilt is only a temporary means to the restoration of a social or personal equilibrium, even harmony.
The international norms adopted during the 20th century to prevent the use of chemical weapons were built on this “expanding” moral responsibility felt by much of humanity. Now we are witnessing once again a call to act on those norms.