Citizenship and common sense guide public opinion on Syria

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Bombing Syria. Being a citizen is difficult. Sometimes it seems hard to salvage the mere word. For the Ford brothers, we're just taxpayers: savings-seeking entities with votes. Same for Harper Tories. Still the citizenry persist, like some ancient instinct asserting itself, yearning for a larger public role. It's easiest to deploy this right regarding local or national issues.

On the economy for instance, we can resort to personal experience: Have you a job? How's it going? What about your kids, or sister-in-law? On social issues too, like gay rights. Almost everyone has family, or knows someone, or is -- gay. So you can form judgments and needn't rely on people in power telling you what has to be. You use the old noggin, as a teenager I know likes to say, wryly.

The exception and stumbling block for citizens, is foreign affairs. We aren't there, don't speak the language, etc. Take the impending attack against Syria. It sounds familiar; haven't we been here before? In fact, we have. Seumas Milne in the Guardian says this will be the ninth time in 15 years that western forces have attacked or invaded an Arab or Muslim country. But it isn't like gay marriage or austerity versus stimulus; on what basis dare we evaluate it for ourselves?

They tell us (whoever they are and however they get there) it's because Syria's regime used chemical weapons on its own people, crossing Barack Obama's "red line." U.K. Foreign Minister William Hague called that uncivilized, "the first use of chemical warfare in the 21st century." Analysts and journalists on BBC, CBC and PBS -- to take the soberer outlets -- echoed this. Military expert David Bercuson told CBC that chemical weapons were avoided throughout the Cold War after the horrors of gas in the First World War. That sounds authoritative.

But hold on. The U.S. used napalm and Agent Orange in Vietnam in the 1960s, and depleted uranium and white phosphorus in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004. Britain fire-bombed Dresden and other German cities in the Second World War. The U.S. dropped nuclear bombs twice on Japan. No one apologized for any of this. So the unique moral urgency rings false. As for humanitarian concern, why not act against the Egyptian military for massacring its own people this summer by withholding $1.3 billion in annual aid? That would have instant impact. I'm not arguing against a strike per se; I'm saying the justifications for it are ludicrous.

The point isn't whether the West should attack or not; it's that the whole discussion is full of crap. I use that term not for effect but precision. They think they can dispense mountains of vacuous bluster on foreign affairs because people lack touchstones they have in domestic matters. It takes grit to reject a massive, confident, uncontradicted barrage without feeling insecure or insane.

And yet -- here's the miracle -- public opinion in apparently all western countries, including the U.S., opposes a strike on Syria on "their" grounds; people have made it through the crapstorm. How? I guess by using the old noggin; they connected the dots among what items of real information they have, discounted the experts and assumed people elsewhere are similar enough to us -- despite different languages, faiths etc. -- that they can draw conclusions about what makes sense over there, by themselves. It's a victory for citizenship and common sense. Personally, I'm inspired and have decided not to abandon hope.

Broadchurch. Since I'd voiced fear that Broadchurch, the British crime series, would botch its ending last weekend, à la The Killing, I'm glad to say they pulled it off. They tossed up too many suspects with plausible motives but cleverly explained those away. Best of all, they did what I don't recall any similar series doing: they revealed the killer early in the final episode, then spent the bulk of it recounting what happened to everyone else afterward. That's of course what we really want to know, but I only realized it from seeing it done. It makes you eager for their next season, along with the return of Sherlock (with Benedict Cumberpatch, not the U.S. version) in November.

P.S. I'll be taking some time off this column, to work on a series.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Steve Rhodes/flickr

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