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Just over two years ago, in March 2010, I was a tourist in Damascus: I ate things, I bought things, I danced around a tiled fountain with the cigar-wielding brother of a restaurant owner in the Christian Quarter. I walked through souks, madrassas, caravanserais and hammams; I was guided around the Umayyad Mosque by a young Arabic teacher who doubled as a guide for extra cash, as families sat around in the sunny inner courtyard passing the time, eating, watching their children play. I was on holiday in Syria. This hardly seems possible now.
I’d arrived, quite coincidentally, during a thaw in relations between Washington and Damascus. The U.S. had withdrawn its ambassador in 2005, after the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, but President Obama was then pursuing a policy of engagement. Robert Ford, his recess appointment pick for ambassador, had visited earlier in the month. I went as an invited guest at a conference, Social and Economic Concepts in Eurasian Comparison, hosted by the Finnish Institute in Damascus. I would not likely have gone to Syria on my own, although I am now convinced that it would have been perfectly safe to do so at the time. But such can be the hesitations of an American travelling in the Middle East since 9/11, with Syria being a perhaps rare but not impossible destination. The U.S. has recently had a fairly conflicted relationship with Syria, moving between isolation and engagement. Syria has been designated a “state sponsor of terrorism” by the State Department since 1979, the member of longest standing in a list that presently also includes Cuba, Iran and Sudan. On the other hand, it joined coalition forces against Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War, and it has also clearly cooperated to some extent with the U.S. in its “war on terror,” including mutual handovers of prisoners.* Even so, in a May 6, 2002, speech given at the Heritage Foundation, then-Undersecretary of State John Bolton designated Syria (along with Cuba and Libya) as outliers to the infamous “Axis of Evil” proclaimed by President Bush in his January 2002 State of the Union address.**
This slogan from those heady days after 9/11 and before the Iraq invasion sticks in my mind partly because it was designed to but also because it captures so well the restrictive moral imagination of that administration, which so easily reduced the world to agonistic polarities of good and evil precisely because such simplifications were indispensable to the inauguration of war against an enemy so indefinite as “terror.” The distortions accompanying this bid to capture hearts and minds are perhaps now more evident, but back then, the universe of American political discourse was being subtly streamlined, the machinery of power was moving into full gear, all with a disarming speed that left many struggling to catch up. And so it was that the use of torture became a topic earnestly debated by public intellectuals with what passed at the time for gravitas, as its practice by the U.S. became institutionalized abroad. Which is to say, there are lies and abuses at the center of all this whose effects still ripple through the passing years. This context shaped my decision to go to Syria: first, I had the luck of an opportunity; second, I wanted a vantage point from which to consider the politics of my country and gauge its effects on my perceptions. I knew very little about where I was going—it was an enigma, an abstraction, lines on a map. Then again, this is more or less true of Texas, where I’ve never been. It can even be true of cities where one lives, if the rhythms of one’s life do not lead one often enough away from well-travelled paths and familiar circles.
But some abstractions are more powerful and politically useful than others, and moral opportunism and confusion have certainly accompanied the language of terror that has been so predominant for over a decade now. It is an extraordinary and overflowing language, if you think about it, one that easily bleeds into neighboring linguistic territories such as injustice, immorality, pain, trauma, death. By evoking so many things that oppose life, the emotional energy of these words is adaptive to almost any personality or government. It is hard to contain. And in all the speaking, talking and arguing that follow from such powerful language, persistent repetition dulls, distorts, and alienates. But then something like the slaughter at al-Houla happens, and what is right and wrong comes sharply if briefly into focus again, perhaps alongside some vague trace of an insight into some irrevocably fractured human reality that the actions of governments never can or will repair. And then it passes, and life goes on as before, or not.
This language of terror has contributed to an intense sense of disconnect as I watch the violence in Syria escalate. I can’t relate it and the worldview it signals to my experiences there. In their idiosyncrasy and particularity, my memories and experiences evoke no overarching theories, rules, or plans of action, insisting instead on the mundane, which recedes whenever violence takes over.
Tickets purchased and necessary visas obtained, I was discussing my upcoming trip one day with a European colleague of mine, who told me he wouldn’t go to Syria on principle because of the brutal, repressive nature of its regime. It is good to have people around with strong moral positions on things that one is about to do—it makes you think, even if it does not change your mind about doing them. And then there is Israel, of course; other friends and colleagues either could not visit Syria or would have to get another passport in order to do so. But I was on my way.
* Cooperation between the U.S. and Syria in the “war on terror” was evident after the U.S. invasion of Iraq: see Charles Glass’s “Is Syria Next?” London Review of Books Vol 25, No.14 (24 July 2003), and his more recent “Syria:The Citadel and the War” New York Review of Books Vol. 59, No. 10 (7 June 2012) , both of which give excellent accounts of past and present politics regarding Syria.
** Bolton’s speech is available at: http://www.heritage.org/research/lecture/old-beyond-the-axis-of-evil (accessed June 21, 2012). Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ designated North Korea, Iraq and Iran. See also H.R.1828 — Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003, text available via the Library of Congress websitehttp://thomas.loc.gov/home/thomas.php (accessed June 21, 2012).