Jeb Bladine: Syria a reminder of ‘moral inertia’

Near-unwatchable images from Syria last week showed children burned and strangling to death after rockets dropped by Russian/Syrian jets smothered them with the chemical agent Sarin.

The phrase “moral inertia” came to mind.

Those terrible video images from Khan Sheikhun in northern Syria sparked something in President Donald Trump, who ordered a retaliatory message delivered by 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles onto the airbase housing jets used in the chemical attack.

But all over America, after initial expressions of horror, moral inertia remains.

We witnessed the 2013 Sarin attack in Ghouta, Syria, that killed nearly 300 people in similar fashion to last week’s assault. We watched the deadly bombings beginning last year that have decimated Aleppo, killing tens of thousands. We have read reports ranging from 250,000 to 500,000 killed in the Syrian civil war since 2011, with footnotes noting how people have stopped counting because accurate information is so difficult to compile.

Now, after several dozen deaths in Khan Sheikhun, President Trump responded with intense moral outrage. It belies his recent declaration that Bashar al-Assad is “a political reality we have to accept” — an expression of moral acceptance which, combined with his cozy approach to Russia, perhaps gave the Syrian president confidence to rain death on Khan Sheikhun.


Jeb Bladine is president and publisher of the News-Register.

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Back to moral inertia, taken from Associate Professor Carolina Sartorio’s abstract of her 2008 article in “Philosophical Studies:”

“ … according to ordinary morality, there is moral inertia, that is, moral pressure to fail to intervene in certain circumstances … where a threatening or benefiting process is diverted from a group of people to another … There are two different manifestations of moral inertia: strict prohibitions on interventions, and constraints on interventions … Finally, I discuss the connection between moral inertia and the distinction between killing and letting die (or doing and allowing harm).”

Stepping back from the psychological jargon, we all experience the impact of moral intertia in our day-to-day lives. Do we speak up against racist comments? Do we join protests against situations that cause stupefying levels of suffering and death in our country or others? Do we write an elected official, or a newspaper, to express outrage over some moral deficiency?

Mostly, the answer is No. In fact, today’s political polarization is a primary cause of moral inertia, causing normally candid people to hesitate before speaking their true minds. We have a natural fear of provoking others, even they people likely would remain silent due to their own moral inertia.

Jeb Bladine can be reached at jbladine@newsregister.com or 503-687-1223.

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