Straining the quality of mercy

Let’s assume for a moment that America’s recent missile attack on the Syrian airfield was a well orchestrated first step in the overthrow of an abhorrent dictator.

Let’s make the slightly more problematic assumption that we aren’t going to question the Constitutional legality of launching missiles at a country with whom we are not officially at war—that keeping Congress out of the decision-making loop was necessary to get the job done quickly.

Finally let’s assume that the missile strike was a justified reaction to a repugnant crime, one that mercilessly targeted civilians.

If you frowned at the possibility of that last one being even remotely true, I’m with you; for a “repugnant” crime would demand a sense of moral decency on someone’s part, a quality that this president has never displayed. And to recognize an act as “merciless” would demand an acceptance of mercy as a human quality, one which is, as Shakespeare put it, not strained. Trump has not merely strained it, he has pretty much dammed it up.

Moral decency and mercy do not exist in that Trumpian vacuum. A man who is perfectly willing to fracture immigrant families, to malign and exclude entire nationalities from a life in the United States, to blithely remove health care from twenty million citizens, and to undo or eviscerate every attempt of the past fifty years to make our air safer to breathe and our water safer to drink—someone like that does not recoil at an atrocity on the other side of the world, but instead turns it to his political advantage, or more accurately, obeys someone who illustrates how it can be done.

If the airstrike on Syria hurts or weakens someone as vicious as Bashar Assad and deters him from using chemical weapons in the future, good. But if the attack was little more than a chance for Trump to deflect criticism that he’s too close to the Kremlin, or that the defense budget really does need to be increased, or anything else that strengthens his depleted poll numbers while he luxuriates at Mar-a-Lago, then I’m not ready to celebrate our newfound membership in the community of nations. Not just yet.

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