Should we bomb Britain for allegedly selling chemical weapons? That was the question at the center of novelist Teju Cole's most recent stream of tweets parodying The Washington Post's Syria explainer.
Some say incinerating Buckingham Palace would send a message and next time Britain will think twice before selling nerve gas. I don't know.— Teju Cole (@tejucole) September 3, 2013
A little context: Last week, Washington Post blogger Max Fisher's much-circulated post, "9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask," came to serve as a CliffNotes guide to the civil war in that nation, answering questions like "What is Syria?", "Why are people in Syria killing each other?", and "Why hasn’t the United States fixed this yet?"
Last night Cole (who has notably tweeted drone fiction and trips along Africa's Slave Coast in the past) took to Twitter to consider what a discussion about bombing Britain, which authorized the selling of dangerous chemicals to Syria several months ago, would look like.
2 Q. Why are the Britons selling nerve gas chemicals to Syria? A. Money, innit.— Teju Cole (@tejucole) September 3, 2013
6 Q. Why hasn't the US fixed this yet? A. It's complicated. To burn down Oxford would be sad. Do nothing, and Britain remains dangerous.— Teju Cole (@tejucole) September 3, 2013
The Open City author acknowledges that distributing chemical weapons isn't the same as using them. "All that said, U.K.’s issuance of a license for the export of chemicals or holding arms trade fairs for whomever has the money does not not make Cameron a butcher like Assad," Cole told Fisher in an interview discussing his Twitter posts.
At the same time, he argues that there's something problematic with the fact that it seems odd to bomb Britain but okay to bomb Syria. "It seems to me that, without quite thinking it through, we’ve divided the world into two: countries we can imagine bombing and countries we can’t imagine bombing," Cole told Fisher. "It’s a question of imagination."
It's also a question of tone. There have been several explainers on Syria recently, many of which take on Fisher's same casual, water cooler voice. "How did this start, anyway?" is one of the prompts from WNYC's explainer. Mother Jones and The Huffington Post also have slightly more comprehensive rundowns. In all cases, though, the writer runs the risk of painting Syrians as an "other." As Cole explained, while the explainers are useful, he has a problem with their tone, and how they characterize Syria:
But, tonally, it was still very much about “the Other,” about them over there, those strange people doing crazy things. Even the music break felt like a simplification of the people in question, as though our fatigue in learning about their terrifying reality were even relevant. And so, when I did my satirical take, it was about how to effectively estrange those whom we rarely consider “the Other”: the Britons.
As for what role America should play in Syria, Cole said he doesn't know the right answer. He said he's "almost certain" he's opposed to a bombing, but acknowledges that, in the past, U.S. intervention worked well in Mali and our failure to intervene in Rwanda led to mass genocide. "Somehow, we must keep the humanity of the people in Syria before us," he said. "Anything we do or do not do, or say or do not say, should be about them, not about us."