(The Root) — What is so blaringly disturbing about the recent debate over whether the United States should engage militarily in Syria's civil war — and the call for congressional debate and action — is the complete lack of acknowledgment that America has been fighting its own intellectual civil war for five years.
The Republican establishment has engaged in visceral attacks on the nation's president and its citizens — namely Hispanics, African Americans and the poor. The major tactic employed by GOP operatives in this war, and aided by Fox News talking heads and conservative billionaire donors, has been utter obstinacy: refusing to govern as long as the nation's first African-American president resides in the White House. The obstruction has led to major watershed moments, like the first-ever downgrade of U.S. debt. Today Republicans threaten a government shutdown if the health care expansion, known as Obamacare, is funded as part of the federal government's continuing resolution.
Loud voices from the right of the political spectrum call for the impeachment of Barack Obama, as if these elected officials — sworn to uphold and protect the Constitution — are blindly unaware that President Obama has committed no high crimes or misdemeanors (unless, of course, being black in the White House constitutes as both). Incessant xenophobic attacks on the president, Hispanics and Muslims have driven a wedge between the party of Lincoln and the broader American populace — a rainbow nation that is increasingly less white and more diverse.
So what does any of this have to do with Syria's civil war?
President Obama's surprise decision this weekend to seek congressional approval before taking military action in Syria is a sign of his deliberate nature and his commitment to consensus. It is a welcome departure from the hubris displayed by the likes of George W. Bush's Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and former Vice President Dick Cheney, who wielded biased ideological positions to drive military policy — even in the wake of insufficient empirical evidence to support their actions.
But Obama's decision is also shrewdly political.
His challenge to Republicans on the question of Syria forces them to show their cards. Will they make a play for their holy grail of military intervention and imperialistic endeavor, or hold true to principles of small government and limited spending? And if they choose the former, how does the GOP justify ignoring crises in America, while policing democratic values abroad?
John Boehner's House of Representatives has been the most inept, least productive and, by most measures, most counterproductive in the history of this republic. As Congress is now asked to weigh the value of children's lives in Syria, it is crucial to remember its most senseless act of obstruction in the last five years: failure to pass gun-control legislation in the wake of the December 2012 massacre in Newtown, Conn.
The violent shooting of 20 elementary school children at first seemed to be a moment that could transcend the partisan rancor. It was not to be. Instead, Republicans became galvanized against the Obama White House's call to act in the wake of such devastating violence.
It seems terribly ironic that this confederacy of dunces makes up the nation's political elite and must now decide whether the U.S. military will enter its third major combat enterprise in a decade — a decade that has seen staggering wages, a debilitating recession and a dying American dream.
Speaking in the Rose Garden on Saturday, President Obama admonished members of Congress to consider this question: "What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?"
It's a critical question, without an easy answer.
According to reports from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 40,146 civilians have been killed during the 29-month-long civil war, including more than 5,800 children. The alleged chemical-weapons attack that prompted Obama to consider military strikes reportedly took the lives of at least 426 children.
Guns are not gas attacks or bombs, but they can be equally lethal. And more American children are dying in peacetime over the course of a few years than in any Middle Eastern wartime battle currently being waged.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2,694 children and teens died from guns in 2010 alone (pdf). U.S. children and teens are 17 times more likely to die from a gun than their peers in 25 other high-income countries combined. Although American children make up 43 percent of all children and teens of the other top 25 industrialized countries, they represent 93 percent of all children killed by guns (pdf). American children were 32 times more likely to die from gun homicide and 10 times more likely to die from a gun accident or gun suicide. The Children's Defense Fund reports that in 2010, U.S. child death rates were more than four times higher than in Canada, the country with the next-highest rate, and nearly seven times higher than in Israel — a nation that is arguably in a state of perpetual proxy warfare (pdf).
Slate estimates that as of September 2013, roughly 22,981 people — many of them children and teens — have died from guns in the U.S. since the Newtown shootings.
As the nation weighs the meaning of war and the international responsibility to act in the face of unspeakable violence, it is time for congressional Republicans and Democrats to value the lives of American children being massacred on U.S. soil and respond — with legislative force — before authorizing billions of taxpayer dollars in an effort to stop the massacre of children thousands of miles away.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington, Arise America and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.