Joseph Stalin once famously said that a single death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic. He was right. We know that Stalin murdered tens of millions of people, but we can’t really conceive what that means. We can’t picture the individual suffering. We just hear the statistic.
Ironically, this inability to comprehend mass murder is what allowed many to sit by as Stalin marched tens of millions to their graves. And it’s the reason America has done nothing to stop the bloodshed in Syria.
Most Americans glance at headlines about Syria and barely blink an eye. They hear that 30,000 people have been murdered and 1.2 million displaced, but they don’t truly comprehend it.
Here’s one way to wrap your head around what’s happening in Syria: Picture a husband, wife, son, and daughter — the typical family of four. Now picture this family being taken onto their front lawn and executed. Now picture this happening to 7,500 additional families across America. In fact, just think about how long it would take you to count to 7,500. Now you’re beginning to comprehend what’s happening in Syria.
Next, imagine 300,000 such families being forced to flee their homes and live in squalid tent-cities, where they have nothing to do and nothing to eat. Count to 300,000, and picture each of these families traveling hundreds of miles on foot across the arid desert. Now you’re beginning to comprehend what’s happening in Syria.
For more than a year, Americans have turned a blind eye to this suffering. The Syrian government murders its people, and we tell ourselves it’s a “civil war.” The Syrian Air Force drops bombs on civilian neighborhoods and we tell ourselves there’s nothing we can do. We give the Syrian people no option but to turn to extremist groups, and then tell ourselves they’re “anti-American” and don’t deserve our help.
On Passover, Jews are told to picture themselves as slaves in Egypt, so they can internalize their ancestors’ suffering. Similarly, Americans should view themselves as Syrians. They should imagine bombs being dropped on their neighborhoods; abandoning homes they’ve lived in for decades; and watching helplessly as government death squads execute their children.
If all of this were happening in America, would we accept the world’s indifference? Would we accept the world’s refusal to help us fight back? And would we be so desperate that we’d accept help from anyone, even if we disagreed with their extremist views?
There are risks to arming the Syrian opposition — the main one being that the weapons we give them might fall into the hands of terrorists or be used against us one day. But it’s also possible that those weapons will be used to liberate Syria, and become the foundation of a civilian-led military or police force.
There are also risks to not arming the Syrians. We will fuel anti-American sentiment in Syria and project weakness across the globe. We will drive the Syrian people into the arms of anyone willing to help them, including al Qaida. And we could end up with a lawless post-Assad Syria that is run by terrorists and extremists.
Above all, America must aid the opposition because it’s the right thing to do. If Americans took the time to understand the individual human suffering occurring in Syria, they would demand the U.S. government do more to stop the slaughter. Americans must view what’s happening in Syria as a tragedy, not a statistic.
David Meyers served in the White House from 2006 to 2009, and later in the United States Senate. He is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.