The U.S. recently almost bombed Syria – which would have undoubtedly added to the civilian casualties in an already horrific human tragedy – because someone over there used chemical weapons. Despite the ruckus raised by the U.S. public and the administration’s political enemies, the administration may very well have gone right ahead and carried out this senseless killing were it not for an accidental stray comment made by the Secretary of State that torpedoed (pun intended) the whole project.
The ironies in the way this whole scenario played out were quite staggering: a peace offer, from the regime of a ruthless dictator, that could not be refused; a political faction normally giddy over U.S. military aggression, especially in the Arab and Muslim world, calling for restraint. But one irony that no one seemed to notice was that the U.S. expressed shock and outrage over the use of Chemical weapons. Anyone familiar with the history of chemical weapons use and development by the U.S. might justifiably be a little confused.
Developed at Harvard in 1942, napalm became a significant weapon for the U.S toward the end of World War II. The U.S. and England dropped tens of thousands of tons of napalm on Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo, killing many civilian inhabitants of those cities. The U.S. went on to drop over 32,000 tons of napalm during the Korean War and 388,000 tons of napalm during the Vietnam War.
The U.S. sprayed upwards of 20 million gallons of herbicides on Vietnam between 1961 and 1972, much of it Agent Orange, a defoliant developed by Monsanto Corporation and Dow Chemical. The Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs reports that around 400,000 people were killed or maimed by these sprayings.
More recently, the U.S. used napalm and white phosphorus in Iraq. Like napalm, white phosphorus embeds itself in human skin with intense burning, often leading to death. Survivors continue to suffer the effects of white phosphorus which can erupt into flames even days later when bandages are removed.
All of this information was conspicuously missing in the public discourse regarding U.S. action toward Syria. Of course, this silence results not from any sort of conscious conspiracy but rather from old fashioned selective amnesia, a sort of blindness of biblical proportions, the kind that comes from having a log jammed in your eye (Matthew 7:3).
The gospels record Jesus encountering proverbial blindness at every turn in his ministry to proclaim the dawning of a new society (“kingdom”) of abundance, love and mercy. At one point, exasperated by the hypocrisy of the ruling class, he calls them “blind guides” (Matthew 23:16). In another place, Jesus quotes Isaiah, “You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving” (Matthew 13:14). John records Jesus declaring ironically, after healing a blind man who is in turn persecuted by the authorities, “I came into the world for judgment so that those who do not see may see and those who see may become blind” (9:39).
Countering the blindness of imperial culture, a mentality that refuses to examine its own history and behavior, can be exhausting. That is why we must learn from Jesus how to quote the prophets, how to use irony, and how to be doggedly persistent in our analysis and truth-telling.
The authorities may not listen to us, but the people might. It is in the people, whom Jesus called “the salt of the earth” and the “light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-14), that our hope lies for an honest accounting and a new society of abundance, love and mercy.
Bert Newton is the author of Subversive Wisdom; Sociopolitical Dimensions of John’s Gospel