Navy Yard and Syria — A Possible Connection

by Amos N. Guiora 

Drawing analogies and engaging in “connecting the dots” is always a risky proposition. Nevertheless, there are tantalizing points of similarity between Syria and the Navy Yard tragedy that warrant a closer look than at first blush. In many ways, the thread that links the two is what the SJ Quinney College of Law’s newly established Center for Global Justice seeks to address.

In broad strokes, the Center that Professor Erika George and I co-direct is an initiative dedicated to examining the role of law in elevating the human condition and exploring the relationship between justice and human dignity. This is done by engaging in candid, difficult, and at times painful, debate regarding complex issues that directly affect the human condition such as the recent events in Syria and the Navy Yard.

This requires asking forthright questions and searching for answers, regardless of the cost, regarding how these events unfolded, what could have been done to prevent them, and what lessons can be learned and applied. In many ways, both Syria and the Navy Yard suggest a paradigm where political points are more important than addressing the crux of the matter, or at least seeking to address complex matters devoid of mere rhetoric. As I suggest below, the consequences of vapid discussion are too dangerous, the issues too important, and the impact on the human condition too significant not to re-structure the nature of political discourse.

I come to this essay while engaged in a major research project addressing the role of the bystander, focusing on the “death marches” during the Holocaust in late 1944-Spring 1945, and the lynching of African-Americans in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Regarding the Holocaust, the project examines events such as the following:

In late 1944, the tide of war had turned and Allied forces moved across Europe in a series of offensives on Germany. The Nazis decided to evacuate outlying concentration camps. In the final months of the war, SS guards forced inmates on death marches in an attempt to prevent the Allied liberation of large numbers of prisoners.

Those death marches passed directly through many towns, and many died literally at the front doors of townspeople. Many died from starvation, disease, exhaustion, and cold, and thousands more were shot along the way. It is estimated that 250,000 concentration camp prisoners were murdered or died in the forced death marches that were conducted during the last 10 months of World War II.[1]

How does this relate to the Navy Yard and Syria?

To answer that question we have to take a step back with respect to both, and inquire how we got here. How is it that the Syrian regime acquired chemical weapons and used them, according to both the Obama Administration and tentatively the UN, killing 1700 Syrian civilians?  How is it that they will, in all likelihood, go unpunished for this horrific violation of international law and convention?

Similarly, how is that Aaron Alexis, a Navy Reservist with a deeply troubled background, was granted access to a secure military base while armed with a shotgun, which then allowed him to shoot a guard and take his semiautomatic pistol?

With respect to the Syrian conflict, there are three significant issues that have been underreported.  All three link directly to Global Justice: 1) the killing of over 100,000 Syrians by the government and rebels alike in a brutal civil war; 2) the unfettered amassing by the Syrian government of an extraordinarily large stockpile of chemical weapons over the past few years; 3) the continued uncertainty of Western leaders regarding how best to address Iran’s nuclear development efforts.

What is the thread that ties the three seemingly disparate developments? A determined effort to turn a blind eye in the face of clear and present harm to individuals and a possible grave threat to international security. Tragically, this is not the first time both leaders and publics alike have failed to stand up resoundingly to unmitigated violence by state actors who are deliberately harming a civilian population.

The unpleasant truth is that if not for President Obama’s unintended “red line”, neither the US government nor the public would have paid more than a passing glance at the unending Syrian tragedy. Former Secretary of State Clinton’s meaningless and empty mantras and clichés regarding violence largely represented US policy. In other words, the US was disengaged.

While some have suggested the US cannot—perhaps must not— be the world’s policeman and that other nations must “step up” (as if this were a baseball game), I suggest this is a risky proposition in the face of unrelenting brutality and horror. At a minimum, there is a critical discussion the public and its elected officials must have, frankly and thoroughly. This discussion cannot occur in the contemporary US political environment which is best described as yelling into the “echo chamber” and highlighted by highly politicized, albeit empty statements.

Which leads us to the Navy Yard. The aftermath of the tragedy that unfolded in Washington, DC on Monday, September 16, 2013 will be hand wringing in some quarters, and in others perhaps a discussion regarding the need to re-examine the nation’s gun laws coupled with a demand that authorities more effectively protect secure locations. It is safe to assume there will be questions regarding Alexis’ continued employment as a Navy contractor, particularly considering his consistent record of violence and troubling behavior.

These are all relevant and important questions. However, the discussion will largely be superficial, rote and vapid. While the public was engaged in intense and emotional discussion regarding gun control in the aftermath of the Newtown, CT tragedy, the political calculation (maybe miscalculation) resulted in what is best described as “same old, same old.” In other words, the ship kept a steady course.

The broader question is what this steady course says about the human condition.

In exchange for entering into a social compact with the state, the individual expects protection and safety in return. By willfully entering into an association with other individuals under the ‘umbrella’ provided by the state, the person rightfully demands protection and safety. In addition, by agreeing to the social compact, the individual expects laws that reflect the majority will. Nevertheless, the individual has the right to oppose particular laws the majority has viewed favorably.[2]

That is, after all, the essence of democracy: while the individual may oppose particular laws he is guaranteed protection from the majority, provided the laws do not minimize otherwise guaranteed individual rights or facilitate violence to person or property. The social compact, in establishing an association, articulates a paradigm whereby the individual sacrifices liberty for protection.

The social contract model articulated by Rousseau and Locke sought to create a model whereby harm to individuals is minimized; yet the pages of history are replete with examples where the contract has been violated by the nation state that turns a blind eye.  In that spirit, when debate regarding the limits of privacy and the relationship between privacy and personal security is studiously avoided, it is legitimate to question whether the social compact has given way to political expediency.

Focusing on both Syria and the aftermath of the Navy Yard in the context of  “elevating the human condition and exploring the relationship between justice and human dignity” suggests a troubling paradigm. That paradigm recalls the bystander, and weak leadership with short-term political considerations, that failed to ask the tough and pointed questions. Perhaps this is the consequence of a public more attuned to reality TV than to serious political discussion. The long-term harm resulting from obsessions with Kim Kardashian cannot be dismissed with a causal wave of the hand; the stakes are so profoundly high and the consequences of passivity so deeply disturbing.

We do not have the luxury to avoid asking these difficult questions. How is that Syria is armed to the teeth with chemical weapons? How is that Aaron Alexis seemingly had a “clean bill of health” when numerous indicators suggested otherwise, yet he could lawfully purchase a weapon and gain access to a secure military facility?

This is the essence of the Center for Global Justice: to directly examine, engage and debate these complex issues.


Amos Guiora is a Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Center for Global Justice at the S.J. Quinney College of Law, the University of Utah. Guiora who teaches Criminal Procedure, International Law, Global Perspectives on Counterterrorism and Religion and Terrorism incorporates innovative scenario-based instruction to address national and international security issues and dilemmas.

[1] : , last viewed July 9, 2013

[2] It is important to note that Rousseau rejected the individual’s right to resist a general will.

[3] For historical examples see anti-Semitism in Europe, institutionalized racism in the Deep South, and Japanese treatment of Korean sub slaves.

[4] See generally Peter Singer, Democracy and Disobedience (1st ed. 1973).