Letter from Washington: Violence in the Time of Engagement

Walking through the marble halls of the White House, I was struck with an apparent falsity – how could a place so stark, so clinical, be the heart of some of the most violent engagements in history?

Two particular acts of violence took place while I was in Washington this Spring Break.

The first was the decision by US President Donald Trump to authorize a missile airstrike against Syria on April 7.

This came in response to a chemical weapons attack, purportedly committed by the Assad regime, just off the city of Idlib three days earlier.

The second was the bombing of two cathedrals in Egypt on Palm Sunday, a day of celebration for Christians across the world.

While Egypt’s ongoing efforts against radical Islamic militant groups in the country is not new, these attacks especially have called into question the efficacy of the state’s counterinsurgency campaign.

Yet, what struck me the most over 9, 000 km from both Cairo and Syria is the discourse on violence in the ‘mainstream’.

It has become clear that violence against the state and violence by the state are perceived on entirely different matrices of logic.

It is no longer merely the question of who committed the act of violence, but rather that what violence actually means is predetermined by a range of socioeconomic, political and cultural paradigms that undergirds a particular understanding of the world order.

The Politics of Reprisal 

On April 5, the US Ambassador to the United Nations (UN) Nikki Haley held up pictures of convulsing children, frothing at the mouth, before the Security Council.

The Western block pushed for a resolution condemning the use of chemical weapons, illegal under international humanitarian law and the Chemical Weapons Convention – which Syria ratified in 2013.

The resolution was nevertheless blocked by the Russian veto.

What is interesting, however, is that at no point did the draft resolution expressly call for armed action against the Syrian government for the alleged violations.

In fact, at that point, it had not yet been conclusively proven by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) that it was indeed the Assad regime that deployed the use of nerve and sarin gas in Idlib.

The US, buttressed by the ‘opposition groups’ and liberal media agenda, was quick to form a judgment and quicker still in taking unilateral action in the face of a Security Council deadlock.

It seems as though the West seems more motivated to blame the government, in spite of the lack of scientific certainty, than it is to actually end the bloodshed in Syria.

Selective Humanitarianism 

The truth is that more children in Syria have died through conventional means of warfare than they have by chemical and incendiary weapons.

There is no intrinsic reason as to why the war crimes committed by all warring parties should carry any less weight than this particular violation.

The US response to the attack is itself arguably a violation on the prohibition of the use of force.

President Trump’s ‘beautiful babies’ rhetoric is not a carte blanche for unauthorized humanitarian intervention that, ironically, does very little to alleviate the humanitarian crisis anyway.

What is disturbing is that in spite of its dubious legal and moral character, the US’ actions are still largely accepted – even if as ‘illegal but legitimate’.

Violence to Heal / Violence to Hurt 

And this is because the world has become accustomed to a binary that is conducive to reproducing very socialized understandings of which forms of violence are acceptable.

The US is praised for this attack by the media, even as its coalition forces continue to cause wanton destruction in Yemen, Afghanistan and Syria itself.

Yet the world continues to turn a blind eye. Reporters and commentators continue to presume the West is motivated by the highest moral values.

Human rights and democracy are embedded within the concept of the West. And their violence is framed in furtherance of these lofty ideals.

The violence of the East, on the other hand, is perceived as destructive, both domestically and abroad.

Islamic fundamentalism is reduced to an apocalyptic attempt to rupture domestic order instead of a complicated struggle for asserting political power.

The church bombings were not nihilistic – they were driven by a coherent ideology and a standard of morality, no matter how alien they might appear to us.

And refusing to accept this ignores the sociopolitical factors that generated this radical, horrible brand of violence.

Continuing to understand violence through this asymmetry – that Western violence is benevolent, whereas Eastern violence is barbaric – reproduces deeply entrenched colonial values and undermines any attempt at mitigating the ongoing crises ravishing the world.

Mohamed Kouta

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