If you have a few minutes, read this essay by Peter Harling, The Syrian Trauma. He wrote it in September 2016, but I only discovered it about two weeks ago. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, though.
“Every now and then,” he wrote,
the conflict in Syria produces an iconic image of horror and suffering, which many brandish as an undisputable truth that will finally shake the world into “doing something.” Others break down at the sight of such images, or instinctively avert their senses. Mass killings and disappearances, industrial-scale torture and sexual abuse, gruesome staged executions, starvation tactics, the continued use of chemical weapons, napalm, cluster and barrel bombs, not to forget the torments of desperate emigration – all have spawned morbid emblems of their own.
“Arguably, all conflicts are traumatic,” he continues,
… Syria seems nonetheless to bring in something different, hard to pin down — an elusive truth that is precisely what we should not fail to understand. Indeed there are many layers to the Syrian trauma. First, Syrian culture, in normal times, is remarkably civil. The Syrian dialect of Arabic is ravishingly polite. Education is a source of national pride. Unlike many other parts of the Arab world, urbane mores permeated the countryside more than a rural ethos reshaped the city. Communal coexistence, edgy on occasions, was nevertheless a profession of faith.”
It occurred to me, as I kept reading, that the Syrian civil war is an event, like the Holocaust, that showed us something new about our innate capacity for depravity. If the Holocaust made clear that humans had the ability to unite the task of murder with the age of industrial efficiency, Syria showed us that we could unite murder on a mass scale with instant, global communication — and remain indifferent, bored, even angry with the victims of what has surely been the most widely-viewed crime of its sort in human history.
Atrocity after atrocity has been documented, filmed, frantically uploaded, broadcast, in real time, to an indifferent world. It is hardly the world’s first terrible war, of course. But it’s the first conflict of this magnitude to take place in the age of the Internet and the cell phone. It’s the first time the whole world has been able to see, in so much detail, the faces of the grieving and the dead, to hear the voices of victims begging for help. Anyone with a phone can even call Syrians themselves to speak to them directly — on Skype, no less, for free. And the world, having seen this, replied, “So what.” The world listened as half a million Kitty Genoveses screamed for help. It shrugged.
Thus, wrote Harling,
… a fifth and related source of trauma for Syrians … the horrifying spectacle of an outside world watching on as their country is pointlessly and endlessly tortured. They have learned the hard way how shallow and callous our media and politics can be. People who remember every sorrow in every detail must contend at best with generalized amnesia, at worst with conventional wisdom dismissing their life experience. Their misery is met with fatigue; their flight to safety with hysteria.
On Tuesday, videos and photographs displaying the aftermath of a chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhoun, south of Idlib, emerged. Again, anyone with a cellphone could see what it’s like to experience this:
I expected the world to meet this with the same indifference as it had all the previous attacks. And for all the reasons that don’t bear repeating, I certainly didn’t expect President Trump to do anything about it. But yesterday the news broke in the middle of the night (in Paris, anyway) that the United States had launched 59 Tomahawk missiles at Shayrat Airfield, targeting “aircraft, hardened aircraft shelters, petroleum and logistical storage, ammunition supply bunkers, air defense systems, and radars.” That’s the airfield from which the planes that dropped chemical weapons on Syrian civilians — and then bombed the hospitals treating the victims — took off.
Usually, when news of this magnitude breaks I sit glued before my screen, trying to figure out what’s going on. But I couldn’t this time: I saw the headline, then had to rush out the door. I’d been awake for hours already, assembling my documents and preparing to spend a long and stressful day at 17-19 rue Truffaut.
Like all foreigners who live in France, I need permission to be here. My case falls under an unusual bureaucratic category called “exceptional family circumstances.” But as you can imagine, the Bureau des Étrangers at 17-19 rue Truffaut is overwhelmed by petitions from desperate people with good reasons to want to be in France, ranging from “exceptional family circumstances” to “I will be killed immediately if I go back” to “That’s not a good enough reason, you have 48 hours to leave the country.”
Given the number of applicants at the Bureau des Étrangers on any given day, and given the general principles under which the French bureaucracy labors, these visits are stressful.
I go with everything I can imagine a French bureaucrat wanting to see: my birth certificate, my grade school report cards, my college transcripts and diplomas, my medical records, my father’s medical records, my mother’s last will and testament, my certificate of health insurance, tax records, rental contract, phone bills, electricity bills, my grandfather’s service medals, every book and every article I’ve ever written, half a dozen passport-sized photographs, notarized translations, duplicate copies, triplicate copies — I go with so much bureaucracy-pleasing paperwork that I have to put it in a suitcase. I arrive at dawn, demurely dressed, and wait on line in the cold with all the other stressed, demurely-dressed people until they open (promptly at 9:00 a.m.) – and then we wait on line for hours more.
As we wait together, we naturally bond over our anxiety about what awaits us inside that forbidding building. We’re all desperately eager to appease and please the bureaucracy, but none of us really understand what it wants — no one actually knows, in fact, including the people who work there. We all fear angering it by accident. We’ve all heard stories about things that can happen — to a cousin, an uncle, to someone who worked as a dishwasher in a restaurant in the 9th — and none of us know what to make of these stories or whether it could happen to us.
The first time I went there, it suddenly occurred to me to wonder if this could be the very place my grandparents stood on line, in 1941. I had heard the story of “standing in line” from them, but I don’t think they ever said where, exactly. My grandfather had been promised French citizenship for his service in the Foreign Legion. He’d fought in the Battle of France, on the Belgian border. He was one of only 250 survivors of his 1,250-man regiment. But then France fell, and the only thing they could hope for was an exit visa. I wondered if they’d stood on that line, just like me. But with one very big difference, of course. If the bureaucrats looked at my papers and said, “No,” I’d be deported. Had the bureaucrats inside looked at my grandparents papers and said “No,” they would have been sent to the death camps.
I don’t know whether my grandparents fully understood, at that time, what would happen to them if they were sent to the camps. I asked my father whether they knew, but he doesn’t know, either. There were certainly many rumors about by 1941. But people refused to believe what they were hearing. Perhaps my grandparents didn’t allow themselves to think of that while they were waiting. You can’t think like that if you’re trying to persuade an overworked bureaucrat that all of your paperwork is in the right order and makes perfect sense.
Yesterday morning, everyone’s eyes, like mine, were glued to their cellphones. We were all trying to figure out what had just happened in Syria and what it meant. We were all a bit scared to talk about it with each other. None of us knew for sure where the other people around us came from, after all. Obviously, I didn’t want to end up in a shoving match with a Russian — in front of the cops and multiple surveillance cameras — right before trying to make my case to the officials that I’m a harmless, law-abiding, middle-aged woman who wouldn’t even inconvenience the French state, no less get in a public brawl right in front of the Préfecture de Police. It was strange: everyone was reading the news on their screens, furtively glancing at each other, and then tentatively, whispering, “Qu’en pensez-vous?”
What do you think?
It was definitely not the right time or place for me to say — as I usually would — “Hi! I’m an American journalist, and I’d like to know where you’re from and your reaction to President Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles at a Syrian air base.” It wasn’t even the right time for me to guess where people were from. Wherever you’re from, when you’re on that line, you speak French and you act as assimilated as you know how to act. So I can only say what I saw and heard; I have to guess what it meant.
“C’estimpressionnant,Je pense à ces gosses américains. Ils ont traversé un océan, sont venus dans un pays dont ils n’ont jamais entendu parler, pour faire cela pour nous … “
Believe me, this is not usually the first thing people here say when I say that I’m American. I can’t say for sure why he said it or what he was thinking.
There were a handful of men next to us from Mali, I’d guess, or from somewhere in Francophone Africa. They were perhaps in their thirties. Qu’en pensez-vous? I said to them
One said, tentatively, “Je pense que … j’espère que cela peut être bon, si ça fait bouger des choses … Si cela peux changer quelque chose … “
Another interrupted, “Non! Je ne suis pas d’accord! Ils ne sont même pas allés à l’ONU. Chaque fois que l’Amérique s’implique, elle empire!” He realized he’d raised his voice more than he intended, and returned to a hushed tone. “Mais c’est trop tard, ils auraient dû le faire depuis longtemps, les Américains. Les Syriens, ils ont trop souffert.”
Usually, I can handle any and all questions about American politics and how America works. But I was as stumped as my interlocutor. I told her I honestly hadn’t the first clue. That I was completely surprised. That it was the last thing I thought he’d do. “Mais je suis très heureuse que nous l’avons fait. Enfin."
Everyone fell quiet.
We were all still waiting on line when the jokes about Abu Ivanka al-Amreeki hit the Internet. They made the Malians laugh, although no one — literally no one but me — got the joke about Kushner of Arabia.
I hope everything went okay for everyone else on that line. I hope none of them were deported.
Although I found his book, ultimately, insubstantial, I appreciated his effort to show that the kind of anti-Americanism then fashionable in Europe was irrational and internally incoherent:
The book’s chief mode of argument is to expose the inherent contradictions in their position: Americans, he notes, are pilloried simultaneously for their puritanism and their materialism, for their isolationism and for their imperialism, for their reluctance to dispense economic aid and for dispensing that very aid—this last generally interpreted as a sinister effort to control the destinies and dignity of the beneficiaries.
Revel had little trouble convincing me that Europeans who were obsessed with American failings were often hysterical, inconsistent, or ungrateful. But why were these view so commonly found in Europe? Ultimately, I wasn’t persuaded by his explanation:
Revel’s answer: To affirm the anti-American position is to attack liberalism itself; modern anti-Americanism, he holds, is the socially acceptable avatar of illiberal belief systems—Marxist ones, chiefly—discredited by history. Anti-globalists, in his view, are synonymous with the anti-Americans.
l thought Revel spent too much time picking off the low-hanging fruit, intellectually speaking:
… not all anti-globalists are unreconstructed cold warriors, and not all criticism of the modern economic order is crude. If it was Revel’s aim to dismantle their arguments conclusively, he does not succeed. To do so, he would have had to engage with the anti-globalists’ best arguments rather than their worst ones. The most sophisticated critics of the American-led economic order contend, for example, that the advantages of free trade posited by Adam Smith can accrue only in the context of other liberal freedoms, most notably free movement of labor. The decreasing regulation of trade has in the past half-century been accompanied by increasing regulation of migration. In this context, critics charge, the assumption that all nations will by means of the Invisible Hand take their rightful and prosperous place among the community of nations fails to obtain. It is the lack of freedom—the lack of liberalism’s benefits—suffered by those structurally excluded by the GATT and various multilateral agreements on investment to which these critics address themselves, not always absurdly. Anti-globalists charge that these agreements effectively remove power from accountable bodies such as parliaments and repose it in unaccountable corporations, a criticism that is ideologically compatible with classical liberalism. It may not be correct, but it is not anti-liberal.
Still, I thought Revel did two important things. First, he demonstrated with ample evidence that this delusional species of anti-Americanism truly was widespread in Europe:
Note the reception of 9/11: The Big Lie, a book by the French journalist Thierry Meyssan, who argues that no airplane crashed into the Pentagon on September 11. He proposes that the American secret services and its military-industrial complex invented the event to prime their gullible, sheep-like countrymen for a war of imperial conquest against Afghanistan and Iraq. The book was a bestseller in France.
Second, he argued that since this kind of anti-Americanism had no evidentiary basis, it could neither be rebutted nor taken at face value: It had to mean something other than what it purported to mean. But what?
Anti-Americanism, Revel concludes, is a cultist system of faith rather than a set of rational beliefs. It is thus impervious to revision upon confrontation with logic, evidence, gestures of goodwill, public relations campaigns, or attempts on the part of the American secretary of state to be a better, more sensitive listener. The American Left’s contention that it is the current administration’s foreign policy that has made the United States an object of hatred worldwide is delusory. Revel is dismissive of their program to understand the world’s antipathy toward the United States by means of pained introspection and to correct it with improved behavior: Nothing Americans might do, short of disappearing politely en masse, will help.
Fifteen years later, I’m not sure how well his book, or my reaction to it, have held up. He missed a lot and so did I.
One of the things we both missed is that a parallel vein of anti-Europeanism runs through American political and cultural life.
I’ve been thinking of this recently as I’ve read comments about Europe on various social media that might have been written Russian bots programmed to alienate the United States from its Atlantic allies, but were probably written by real Americans who feel about Europe pretty much the way Thierry Meyssan felt about the United States — and with about as much basis in logic.
The paper documents and tries to explain the rise of anti-European and Eurosceptical sentiment in the United States since the end of the Cold War. Contrary to anti-Europeanism, which has always permeated American culture and underpinned American exceptionalism, Euroscepticism is more confined to political and business elites and targets the process, main policies and identity of the European Union. Although usually conservative, Anti-Europeans and Eurosceptics do not necessarily overlap: anti-Europeans are Eurosceptical but the reverse is not necessarily true. However, Anti-Europeanism and Euroscepticism have become entrenched beliefs among many conservatives.
Europe’s positive image since WWII and the wide support for European unification among American elites, have been replaced by competing views: for example, neo-conservatives believe Europe to be in economic, demographic and cultural decline that the EU only precipitates. Others see a unifying Europe as a rising power which will become more a rival than an ally for the US. Since the early 1990s and increasingly until the war in Iraq, conservative commentators have attacked the style and content of European foreign policy, especially with regard to the Middle-East, Europe’s weak defence budgets, its lack of resolve against terrorism, its welfare state and highly regulated economy, its left-leaning political culture, its growing anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism. The centralizing, elitist and regulatory aspects of the EU have also been denounced to justify Euroscepticism.
It’s only about a dozen pages, so you can read the whole thing quickly, but I’ll just pull out a few passages that struck me. Here, for example, he suggests that some Americans have come to see Europe as a kind of oversized Blue State:
As you keep reading, you may find yourself asking whether the criticisms of Europe that were widely heard in 2004 are still germaine. Was Europe — France in particular — right about Iraq? The current American president certainly thinks so; so obviously, the beliefs for which the French were pilloried in the runup to the Iraq war are now widely accepted among Americans.
The following passage is especially interesting, because it shows exactly the kind of contradiction that Revel pointed out when he wrote about European anti-Americanism:
He expands on this point, but the key, to me, is that the EU is criticized for being too weak and for being a challenge to US power. Like the accusation that the US is both too imperialistic and too isolationist, the claim is so internally inconsistent that we have to assume it’s not an argument but an article of faith. But faith in what?
It’s also interesting to see what American conservatives found objectionable about Europe in 2004 and how different their criticisms were from their criticisms today — even though the underlying sentiment seems unchanged:
I now see some American conservatives criticizing France for not being as eager as they think the French should be to put a Le Pen in power. (France just can’t win with that crowd.)
Then there’s this argument, which is remarkably different in emphasis from criticism nowadays, isn’t it?
Like Revel, Chamorel suggests that these arguments are too contradictory and illogical to be taken at face value.
What, then, really underlies anti-Europeanism? He entertains the following hypotheses:
It’s a backlash against anti-Americanism in Europe.
It’s a response to the end of the Cold War. The United States promoted European integration as a response to the Soviet threat; now that the threat has abated, the EU has come to be viewed as a strategic competitor, rather than an ally.
The United States favors globalization, whereas Europe uses the EU as a shield against globalization.
Americans think of themselves as manly men from Mars and Europeans as sissies from Venus.
There’s no divide between the US and Europe; the divide is an internal one between America’s coastal elites and the culturally conservative “America First” hinterland. (Interesting that he uses the phrase “America First” in 2004.)
It’s a neo-conservative reaction to the strength of the left and far-left in Europe, which have paradoxically become more critical of the United States in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
None of these hypotheses, he acknowledges, quite account for the phenomenon. (And two of them certainly couldn’t account for the phenomenon now: The Russians are back; and Americans themselves have elected a president who promises to unravel the “false song” of globalization.)
What, if anything, strikes you as notable about Revel’s claims or Chamorel’s arguments? How well do you think these essays have held up to the test of time? What do you think really underscores anti-Americanism in Europe or anti-Europeanism in America?