Abraham Joshua Heschel was a Holocaust survivor who eventually settled in the United States, where he served on the faculty of the Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Heschel had broad-ranging interests. His understanding of the responsibilities of being a Jew led him join in common cause with Martin Luther King, Jr., and to weigh in on public policy issues, including the Vietnam War and nuclear weapons.
The following passages are drawn from God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (1955):
One does not discuss the future of mankind in the atomic age in the same way in which one discusses the weather. It would be wrong to leave out of such a discussion the awe, the fear, the humility, the responsibility, that are or ought to be as much a part of the issue as the atom itself. What we face is not only a problem which is apart from ourselves but a situation of which we are a part and in which we are totally involved. To understand the problem we must explore the situation.
The attitude of the conceptual thinker is one of detachment: the subject facing an independent object; the attitude of the situational thinker is one of concern: the subject realizing that he is involved in a situation in need of understanding.
The beginning of situational thinking is not doubt, detachment, but amazement, awe, involvement. The philosopher, accordingly, is a witness, not an accountant of other people’s business. Unless we are involved, the problem is not present.
I can only guess how Heschel would have applied conceptual and situational thinking to current events in Syria, and whether they warrant the threat and/or use of force by the United States in response to the repeated, and now substantial use of nerve gas against civilians by Bashar al-Assad and his henchmen.
The US-Russian agreement on next steps and the UN expert report on the use of CW are now public documents. There’s no shortage of commentary on next steps, so I will make mine brief.
1. In my fertile imagination, I envision an editorial preface accompanying know-it-all, caustic commentary by those who helped plan, execute, or cheerlead the George W. Bush administration’s war in Iraq: “Readers beware: The following op-ed is written by someone whose instincts and choices led to a war of choice that resulted in perhaps 100,000 civilian deaths, nearly 5,000 US combat casualties, tens of thousands of US troops suffering from war-related injuries, and the expenditure of more than a trillion dollars.”
2. The timetable and requirements of disarmament and dismantlement in a war zone – even if the procedures are quite “dirty” and improvisational – are ambitious, to say the least.
3. Assad and the Kremlin will no doubt seek to apply linkages and conditions that will have the practical effect of delaying or forestalling complete CW disarmament.
4. Nonetheless this agreement will be beneficial if it prevents Assad & Co. from subsequent use of CW, obviates the need for US airstrikes, or facilitates them if the Syrian regime uses CW again.
5. Idle speculation about Vladimir Putin’s motives is far less important than the agreement’s impact on the further use of CW and the longevity of the Assad regime.