Trump and the cry of Syria’s children
“Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies,” poet Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote.
Tell that to the children of Syria, the kingdom where everybody dies.
The once beautiful country, full of history and antiquity, culture and cuisine, is now a cemetery. Six years into a bloody civil war that has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocents, the world is once again faced with the images of dead and suffering children.
This week, we saw horrifying scenes of children screaming for their dead parents and parents screaming for their dying children. We saw dozens of children lying dead on the floor. Babies, infants poisoned. We saw their bloodied faces, their foaming mouths, their desperate, disconsolate eyes and learned that they died choking on gas, and we couldn’t look away.
There’s something about helpless, powerless children that inspires even the most puerile grownups to act like adults.
“That attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me — big impact,” President Donald Trump said after the chemical attack on the Syrian village Khan Sheikhoun killed dozens. “It crossed a lot of lines for me. When you kill innocent children, innocent babies … that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line.”
For the children of Syria, “red line” has become synonymous with empty promise. President Barack Obama had his “red line” but he may as well have drawn it in pencil; our spineless Congress eventually erased it. Who would have thought, then, that RealDonaldTrump, king of inconsistencies and erraticism, would draw his own red line?
Trump isn’t exactly known for his political fidelities or his values — but if there’s anything that matters to him besides himself and his business empire, it’s his family. The images of devastated children struck a chord with the father-in-chief and inspired him to act like the commander-in-chief.
We were warned Trump would be unpredictable — and is he ever.
After prodding Obama not to act in Syria, then blaming him for not acting enough, Trump defied his critics and even some of his friends on April 6 by launching a targeted airstrike on the Syrian airfield from where the chemical attack was launched.
He did not hesitate to name and blame Syria’s Mad King, President Bashar al-Assad, for the attack, much to the dismay of his reputed bestie Vladimir Putin. While Assad’s Russian enabler tried to obfuscate the facts, deflecting his own bloodguilt and calling for an “investigation,” President Trump, for once, told the truth.
“Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children,” Trump said during a White House announcement. “It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.”
Across the world, another playground bully was horrified by the attack and joined Trump in unequivocal condemnation.
“There’s no excuse whatsoever for the deliberate attacks on civilians and on children, especially, with cruel and outlawed chemical weapons,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanhayu said. His statement earned a swift rebuke from Putin, who called his accusations “groundless.”
In risking the wrath of the Russian leader, Trump was so grateful for Netanyahu’s support of the first military action of his presidency that his vice president, Mike Pence, called Netanyahu to thank him. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin declared the United States “an example for the entire free world.”
At a time when Trump’s approval ratings are dismal and he doesn’t have the success of “The Apprentice” to tuck him in at night, the praise must feel delicious. In launching a strike, Trump also risked alienating his base — and chief adviser Steve Bannon — whose anti-globalist motto “America First” means that even dying children must come a distant second. War is expensive, they argue, but so is protecting the first lady in absentia from the White House and the president’s $3 million trips to Mar-a-Lago to play golf.
Perhaps the president feels just a little bit guilty that the children choking on sarin gas are the same children he tried to block from seeking refuge in the U.S. with his incendiary travel ban.
Now that his paternal instincts are kicking in and Trump must balance the needs of the world’s children with the needs of his own children, he might look to Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers — he can easily borrow it from his son-in-law, Jared Kushner (who famously kept a copy in his real estate office).
Im ein ani li, mi li? If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
U’kh’she’ani le’atzmi, mah ani? If I am only for myself, what am I?
The children of Syria don’t care about Trump’s promise of “America First.” They don’t care about the world’s tightrope walk around Russia. Or about Iran’s malevolent intentions toward Sunnis and the State of Israel. They don’t care who are their allies and who are their enemies, or even whose plane it was that dropped the poisonous gas that burned up their lives.
The children of Syria care only about one thing: that this conflict ends.
V’im lo ’akhshav, eimatai? And, if not now, when?
Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.