My children learned early on that when they made a pronouncement — such as, “Marijuana is actually good for you,” or “teenagers shouldn’t be forced to get up early” — they would get a standard comeback from me: “How do you know that?” Read it in the paper, or saw it on TV? What publication, what channel, by what author or reporter? What were the qualifications of the person making the claim, and what evidence was offered, and what did you think of the quality of the evidence, and the argument? (This parental rigor has had two results: none of my children has spoken to me since the mid-1990s; and they are all skilled critical thinkers.)
So now the pronouncement, not from young children but from the much less mature Trump Administration, is that Syria’s President Assad has used Sarin nerve gas on his own people, again, in his brutal prosecution of the years-long civil war there. He killed 70 people, we are told, many of them children,in the Syrian village of Khan Sheikhun. The United States must punish him, say the Trumpists, because the last time he did this, in 2013, President Obama let him get away with it. I have a few questions:
- How do we know it was Sarin? So far the only evidence I’ve seen was an on-site doctor’s assertion that the victims’ pupils were contracted, a symptom of exposure to (any) nerve gas. WebMD lists 36 conditions that can cause constricted pupils, including dehydration and anxiety. On the other hand, video clearly showed people without gloves or any other protection handling the victims. If those victims had on them the slightest trace of Sarin, according to the literature, those rescue workers would be dead. (On the other hand: remember the Korean relative of Kim Jong-Un assassinated recently in Malaysia by two women who smeared VX, a nerve agent similar to Sarin, on his face? They didn’t use gloves. How come they’re not dead?)
- If it was Sarin, who deployed it? There is no question that Assad’s planes attacked the village, but Russia says the nerve gas was in a rebel ammunition dump nearby. Why would Assad do this now? Was this the turning point of some crucial battle in his struggle for survival? Well, no, nothing much was going on. The explanation going the rounds is that he was testing US policy. See, the Secretary of State, whatsisname, said the other day that Assad’s future would be up to the Syrian people. This seemed like a terrific break for Assad, after years of US determination to oust him from power. So, naturally, Assad wanted to commit a horrible, heinous, crime against humanity to find out if the US really meant it. Make sense?
- He did it because he’s done it before? The 2013 incident is no better understood after four years than this one after four days. We know it was Sarin, in 2013, but there is no conclusive evidence that the weapons that delivered it were Assad’s. Then as now it makes more sense to keep in mind that the rebels benefit greatly from the world’s abhorrence of Assad’s deployment of chemical weapons. An attack like this by Assad is the ultimate in stupidity; executed by the rebels and blamed on Assad, it would be the ultimate in cunning. President Obama, unsure of the realities of the 2013 attack, asked Congress; do you want to go to war over this (declaring war, you may recall, is Congress’s job). The Congress lost its voice, did nothing, and after a few beats accused Obama of cowardice for not ignoring them and going to war anyway.
- Why is official America so outraged? “No child of God deserves to die like this,” says Trump of the latest victims, explaining why he unleashed a retaliatory air raid. What is the qualitative difference, please, between the children who died at Khan Sheikhun and the 300 civilians, many of them children, who died in fire and falling concrete in the American bombing of Mosul, Iraq, this week. Did those children deserve to die like that?
On the other, other hand, the first Western reporters on the ground are seeing evidence that the nerve agent was deployed from the air, and suggest that the ammunition dump was in fact a disused barn.
I said I had questions, not that I had answers. But I’d feel better if Donald Trump asked some questions, instead of demonstrating over and over that for every problem there’s a solution that is simple, obvious and wrong.