Leon Wieseltier is the Isaiah Berlin senior fellow in culture and policy at the Brookings Institution.
Contemplating the extermination of Aleppo and its people, I was reminded of a sentence that I read this summer. It appeared in an encomium to Elie Wiesel shortly after his death. It was a sterling sentence. It declared: “We must never be bystanders to injustice or indifferent to suffering.” That was Wiesel’s teaching, exactly. The problem with the sentence is that it was issued by the White House and attributed to President Obama. And so the sentence was not at all sterling. It was outrageously hypocritical.
How dare Obama, and members of his administration, speak this way? After five years and more in which the United States’ inaction in Syria has transformed our country into nothing other than a bystander to the greatest atrocity of our time, they have forfeited the right to this language. Their angry and anguished utterances are merely the manipulation of the rhetoric of conscience on behalf of a policy without a trace of conscience. You cannot be cold-hearted and high-minded at the same time. Historians will record — they will not have to dig deeply or interpret wildly to conclude — that all through the excruciations of Aleppo, and more generally of Syria, the United States watched. As we watched, we made excuses, and occasionally we ornamented our excuses with eloquence. The president is enamored of his eloquence. But eloquence is precisely what the wrenching circumstances do not require of him. In circumstances of moral (and strategic) emergency, his responsibility is not to move us. It is to pick up the phone. “Elie did more than just bear witness,” Obama said in his eulogy, “he acted.” And he added: “Just imagine the peace and justice that would be possible in our world if more people lived a little more like Elie Wiesel.” Just imagine.
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