The second column I want to discuss is that by Jonathan Freedland in today's Guardian, and the argument of his I want to focus on is part of a larger point to the effect that between doing nothing about ruthless dictatorships and bombing them there are other options. Like the Christian Science Monitor editorial just featured in my previous post, Jonathan emphasizes the costs in human life of military force, and he also speaks of the potentially distortive effects of external intervention on the political sequel. So as not to repeat the observations I've already made about this, I concentrate on a different feature of his argument. This is that, among the non-violent measures that can be used against hated regimes, there are things that don't depend on governments but can be undertaken by people at large. '[W]hy leave it all to the politicians?', Jonathan asks. 'We can act - and we surely must': we can boycott companies trading with Damascus; we can help people living in repressive states to reach sites on the internet that are blocked to them.
I have no desire to quarrel with this proposal in itself. Encouraging a widespread ethic of solidarity with those in dire need of it, an ethic of aid and rescue, has been an important emphasis of my own work, and the need today to build an international civil-society movement attentive to human rights and their violation is of central importance. However, this cannot be self-sufficient. Action by governments, including military action on occasion, is also necessary. It is necessary for the same kind of reason that charity is not by itself an adequate way of dealing with poverty and other major social problems; of dealing with natural disasters; or epidemics; or major threats to national security. There are some things that require a more organized, concentrated and sometimes urgent response than individuals acting on their own can achieve. This is one good reason why people often look to governments to act, to act on their behalf.
Voluntary individual action - which is in its general nature peaceful action - vis-à-vis Syria is very much to the point. But contrasted with the perspective of non-peaceful means, whether by internal or external agencies, it is merely hoping for the best. Let us indeed hope for the best for the people of Syria. But right now, under cruel assault as it is, I don't know how anyone could rule out the possibility of means of opposition to the Assad regime that are other than peaceful.