September 8, 2013
I glance at the little map with the news story, glance past it, glance back. Stop. Focus.
Where exactly is Syria?
Just under Turkey. Just above Jordan. Iraq is on the right.
I trace the borders with a finger.
And there, over to the left, there's the Mediterranean Sea and, a little further down, Lebanon, then Israel.
Haven't I learned this before?
As I went through this exercise a few days ago, I knew I had, but the knowledge, like the borders of Oklahoma, never seems to stick. And if the simple art of keeping the borders straight is hard, no wonder it feels impossible to so many of us to sort through the thornier facts on Syria.
"What do you make of this Syria situation?" I asked a friend the other day, shortly after my refresher course in borders, imagining millions of Americans in search of trusted advisers to lead them through the labyrinth of how to think about launching cruise missiles at a country few of us have ever seen.
"I've been discussing this with everyone I know," he said, predictably. He's one of those people with an opinion on everything political, usually with an army of data to back him up.
He shook his head.
"And I don't know what to think."
It was a relief, if not a help, to know that how to think about Syria is taxing the best of minds.
For two years, the reports from Syria have sailed right past most Americans, a blur of details about a civil war that didn't seem to touch us.
We've lived for years with the white noise of war, our own wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a distant hum of death and destruction that on a daily basis millions of Americans managed to tune out. So reports of faraway battles in which American soldiers weren't even engaged weren't sufficient to engage our minds.
But we've arrived at this new moment — new but eerily familiar — in which a fresh gust of war is in the air. Syria, at last, sinks into our collective psyche.
In the past few weeks, the percentage of Americans who say they're closely following the news of Syria has doubled, up to almost 40 percent, and even those in the remaining 60 percent can't have escaped the debate.
It's all around us now: The chemical attacks on Syrian civilians, purportedly by the government. The photos of dead children in white shrouds. The horrific numbers from earlier battles: 100,000 Syrian civilians dead, 2 million refugees. The rat-a-tat-tat of conflicting "expert" opinions on what to do about it all.
We discuss the distinction, rhetorical and practical and moral, between war and humanitarian intervention.
But the cautious person recognizes how much we still don't know. Can't know. No matter how much we read, no matter how many pundits and politicians we listen to, we are doomed to a certain amount of ignorance.
It's an axiom — a cautionary one — that generals are always fighting their last war. So are we average citizens, and when we talk about Syria we're also talking about Iraq.
We remember. We remember the passions that a decade ago clouded the minds of the ordinarily clearheaded, the "facts" that turned out to be false, the American invasion that launched years of chaos and consequences we still don't understand.
Syria is not Iraq.
But part of the tragedy of our last war is that those mistakes inevitably, if wrongly, frame the questions and answers now. We have been burned.
The polls say most Americans don't want the U.S. military to launch airstrikes in Syria, no matter how "limited." Men, according to one poll, are likelier than women to favor the strikes, and women are likelier to say they don't know what we should do. But however you slice the numbers, most Americans say no, don't go.
Which doesn't mean the answer should be no. Polls aren't always reliable guides. They helped take us to Iraq.
But if the pollsters asked me about Syria, I'd hesitate, and then, in the belief that violence always breeds violence, say no.
That would be my guess and gamble, and a guess and a gamble are all any of us, including the president, get.
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