Commentary: When I learned that President Trump unilaterally ordered 59 missile strikes against the Al Shayrat Airfield in Syria, a quote by Mahatma Gandhi came to mind. “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.
According to the UK’s Independent, Syrian state media has claimed that the attack killed seven people, including four children. News is infamously unreliable from kill zones in this region, but more than one reputable source has backed up this reporting. An earlier report from the Syrian army’s chief of staff General Ali Ayyoub said that the overnight cruise missile strike had killed six people and injured seven more. In either case, there is little question that this target was not just an inanimate mass of military hardware.
As a peace and justice activist, I will never be able to comprehend the logic behind killing to prove that killing is wrong. As a devotee of Gandhi’s philosophy, I will never be able to justify the taking of a single child’s life in the name of retaliation. And as a new father myself, I will never accept that the safety and prosperity of my own 9 month year old son is more valuable than the life of those children killed on that airstrip.
Do I think Assad is a butcher? Yes I do. Do I think that the use of chemical weapons is an atrocity that should be stopped. Yes I do. Do I think that the war in Syria must end with a negotiated peace settlement and the total defeat of ISIS ideology. Yes I do. But how to make this happen is another matter.
I am with the president when he spoke compassionately about the lives of human beings gassed to death. I am with him when he advocates for the rights of humans to live without the threat of warfare. I am with him whenever he stands for humanitarian aid, diplomacy, international nonviolent resistance, courage, creativity, and love. But I will not be with Trump when he concedes the killing of children just to make a statement. Shame on him if he ever does it again just to boost his approval ratings. For how does launching Tomahawk missiles end war? How does blowing things up bring about peace for the victims of war? How does killing 4 children with 1,000 pound conventional explosives reconcile the murder of other children choked to their graves by sarin? It doesn't make any sense.
As I see it, the reason Assad is brutalizing his own people is because he believes that his use of violence is protecting them from terrorism. The reason Putin is sponsoring Assad’s genocide is because he believes that he is making Russia peaceful through strength. The reason ISIS is kidnapping and torturing anyone it serves them to call an infidel is because they believe they are ushering in Allah’s terrestrial peace through lawful obedience. In suit, Trump’s decision to launch missiles is a message to the whole world. He was saying that America is tolerant, free, equal, and prosperous because we can afford to blow stuff up. If need be, we will lead by brute force.
In all of these cases the message is the same: violence is redemptive; violence solves problems; and the “proper” use of violence is always on the side of the victor. It is an ancient mentality that has poisoned the earth with its hubris, greed, and dishonesty.
I do not know what Trump should have done. I refuse to speak for him or for anyone else. All I know is that Trump is no more or no less guilty of murder than Assad and Putin. The life of one child is no less or more worthy than the lives of thousands.
George Cassidy Payne is a SUNY Adjunct Humanities Instructor and domestic violence counselor. He serves on the National Council of The Fellowship of Reconciliation, the nation's oldest peace and justice organization. In 2014 he founded the online educational resource called Gandhi Earth Keepers International. He lives and works in Rochester, NY.