Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is known for the eternally haunting image of the titular narrator wearing a dead bird around his neck.
He shot the albatross in an act of unexplained recklessness. The poem’s end hints at it being an instance of unintentional, but no less devastating, foolishness. The bird was innocent, and beautiful, and costly. Its death becomes a curse, for the mariner, and the entire crew of his ship.
And as punishment for his crime, the mariner must “wear” his victim.
Coleridge was a sometime-favorite Romantic poet of mine. He won me over early in college, then took a backseat to the smoother, softer language of Wordsworth, and all his bucolic British landscapes. Obviously, I had the requisite crush on Keats, a rite of passage for all 20-year-old Lit Majors.
But there are few images, from poetry or painting or pop culture, as immediately arresting as a man with a giant, arrow-gutted bird slung over his torso. The picture is so vivid and appalling, it morphed into its own 19th century meme, still with us today:
That thing that overshadows all else. That horrible marker of a past sin, one that cannot be brushed off with a few good deeds or apologies.
That thing everyone notices, and indeed must notice, every time they look at a person.
It is not necessarily a fair penalty, and it is not an eternal one. The mariner relates his story to an unsuspecting wedding guest (of all things…), years later, free at last of his albatross. It is told as a tale of caution, and also cautionary hope… even joy.
Yet he carries with him, always, the knowledge and the weight of his sin against the innocent bird.
And so this analogy is right, in two ways, to apply to the carnage and evil happening daily in Aleppo, Syria, and our president’s, and our own, daily reaction of… meh.
Some facts (thinking of you, Gary Johnson): Aleppo is a rebel-held city in Syria. For six years, the country has been fighting a civil war, sparked by the Arab Spring, wherein a group of Syrian rebels decided to take on Syria’s dictator-in-chief, Bashar al-Assad.
We are familiar with certain aspects of the disarray and devastation. Our politicians talk at length about ISIS, a terrorist group that now has control of certain parts of Syria and Iraq. For good reason. Keep talking, and by all means, feel free to go ahead and do a bit more to stop those monsters.
We are also well-versed in the refugee crisis, with millions of Syrians now seeking asylum in Europe, and thousands dying on the journey. We know of this primarily because a refugee dilemma impacts us, and our fellow western democrac-ians in Europe. Will we accept them here? Will we send aid? Etc. By all means, keep talking of this too, and feel free to let your heart have a voice in that conversation.
But what we do not talk about, what the media generally refuses to report on, is the absolute depravity and monstrosity of Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad. This is a man who ordered, and documented, the systematic torture and murder of tens of thousands of political opponents. We know this because one of his hired photographers smuggled out the proof.
This is a man who cut off food and water from Aleppo, a man who regularly barrel bombs rebel territory, knowing that women and children will be killed. Not just knowing – this is a man actively targeting hospitals where children are often the only patients, because there are so many of them, and they get first priority over adults.
Perhaps we should stop calling him a man, and refer to him, like Malek Jandali, as only “The Dictator.”
(If you’re interested in genuine integrity and heroism on this issue, check out the White Helmets documentary on Netflix. It tells the true story of a group of volunteer Syrians who rush in after bombings to rescue everyone they can from the rubble. At least 60,000 lives have been saved thus far.)
Estimates now put the number of civilian deaths in Syria at 400,000+. Did you know that?
I don’t think Gary Johnson did.
And it is not Obama’s fault, in the sense that he does not support Assad.
But he did famously declare that the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line,” inviting military repercussions. That was back, four years ago, in August of 2012.
When proof of that atrocity spiraled across the Internet, almost exactly one year later, Obama decided he would follow through on his promise… provided he be granted Congressional approval.
It was a well-played political calculation. Another war in the middle east was unpopular with Americans, and anything Obama proposed would be immediately rejected, knee-jerk fashion, by Republicans and their constituents.
Obama had an out. And he took it.
Years and years from now, maybe decades, but probably centuries, when we do at last reach a post-racial world, and those future humans, from their perspective, look back on this time and judge us, they may not be so enamored with the “first Black President,” because it will not mean much to them.
Gay marriage may not mean that much to them. Are you shocked and overjoyed when women vote? No. There was a time when you would have been, but that time has passed.
So when our future sisters and brothers judge Obama, they might not care so much about those things, important as they are to us now. (So important to us, that many are loathe to criticize anything POTUS does at all…)
But our future human offspring might. They might care a great deal that when he had a chance to stop further humanitarian fires of devastation, he did… nothing.
But let’s talk of ourselves, for a moment. What will they say of us?
That we were too afraid – of another Iraq, of more debt, of being tagged “the policeman” of the world – to stand up to a deranged dictator, and at least try to save the lives of Alan Kurdi, and the tens of thousands of Syrian children who have suffered and died alongside him?
That we possessed the greatest military in the world – in terms of scope, funding, and personnel – but refused to act, because of diplomatic complications?
It didn’t jibe with our image of ourselves. Our love of selfies, and non-aggression, and being outraged at the other side of the aisle, all the time, getting fired up on empty, baseless crusades against some never-going-to-happen threat to the 2nd Amendment or Roe v. Wade.
“War.” It’s so 1950s. Like the notion of “evil.” Amirite?
Aleppo will be our albatross. That sin we stumbled upon carelessly, without paying much attention. All those children, suffocating on dust, foaming at the mouth from sarin gas, crushed beneath collapsed buildings. Those beautiful, innocent souls.
As Marie Antoinette went down in history for her blithe oblivion to the starvation of French peasants, so too are we.
“Let them eat cake,” she said, from her castle.
We are not so different. How many of us would stutter like Gary Johnson:
“Aleppo. What is that?”
Photo: Getty Images