Another 1,000 Words on Syria

Assad (left) and Putin (right)

Since I last spoke on Syria, the unthinkable has gone down: international diplomacy. Or at least that’s the fantastical illusion. Where do I begin? For the last two weeks the world has sat waiting for a vote from Congress on whether or not the United States would carry out a military strike against the Syrian government for its use of chemical weapons. Call it a consequence of spontaneity, but in those two weeks the U.S. has done a staggering amount of backtracking. And by the U.S., I mean Obama. At first, his decision to strike Syria appeared unanimous and irreversible as though it would come in the following days or even hours. But then, understanding the negative public perception of a quick- to-war president and taking his cue from British Prime Minister Cameron, Obama called on Congress to approve authorization of a strike.

Years after Obama’s presidency has concluded, someone from his administration with inside knowledge of the situation will someday write a tell-all which will include a passage describing Obama’s deep displeasure in turning to Congress on Syria. He won’t say it now, but Syria is about saving face for the president. When he drew his now infamous “red line,” he was drafting a public promise to the world that his administration would take military action against Syria in the event of chemical weapons. He ignored that red line multiple times since setting it, but the events of August 21 were different. This time, there were widespread visual accounts of the attack on social media and a higher death toll. And so now Obama faces a conundrum: take action or go back on his word. Because that’s how it might seem to those internationally who took his “red line” statement as more than just empty rhetoric. And a president who wants to have some political life after his or her tenure ends can’t look like a liar.

But it’s not that easy once you involve Congress. Now, Obama faces defeat and embarrassment as PM Cameron faced when Parliament struck down a proposed British strike on Syria. And that is exactly why the news I woke up to this morning is such a poignant moment in United States foreign policy that it drove me once again to blog.

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September 11, 2001: A Magazine Memory


I’ve been soul-searching all day to figure what would be the best thing to do to commemorate the 12th anniversary of September 11 on my blog. On MLK day, I spoke about his profound effect on my life as a journalist. This day, for me, is no different. I could write a lengthy personal essay about where and who I was when it happened, but I’ve told that story before too many times to count and now it feels uncomfortably worn out. And so, instead, I’ll give some context to an image I tweeted out this morning and put on Tumblr of a magazine cover that changed my life.

It came from the New Yorker dated September 24. I was only 11 at the time and not at all familiar with the publication. I’m still not, not really. Those were the days of Seventeen, J-14, YM, and all those made-for-preteen-girls magazines I could get my hands on (and beg my mother to fund the subscription.) But I saw this cover at the local drugstore in the town where I went to middle school, just a quick drive from midtown—a suburb with the perfect view to watch the city burn that day. It’s one of my earliest memories of falling in love with magazines. I’d seen so many newspaper front pages depicting images from that day and the days that followed, but they were all just snapshots of the moments to have on record for someone to someday update the U.S. history book I was currently reading for school as proof it happened. But the New Yorker was something else. It felt like the memory of a feeling preserved in print forever. It just meant so much more to me than anything I’d seen the NYT or what was then called the Bergen Record, my local paper, do.

Illustrated by Art Spiegelman and his wife Françoise Mouly, it’s an indelible cover that I know for many who became used to seeing the NYC skyline the way it was depicted exactly what we feel when we see it now: darkness. I remember picking up the cover in the drugstore, analyzing it, flipping it every which way to see if there was something I’d missed. Could a magazine really publish a black cover? My creative naivety exposed because I didn’t see the real image on first glance. For the New Yorker’s 10-year remembrance of September 11,  Françoise Mouly had this to say about the original cover:

“Ten years ago, my husband, the cartoonist Art Spiegelman, our daughter, and I stood four blocks away from the second tower as we watched it collapse in excruciatingly slow motion. Later, back in my office, I felt that images were suddenly powerless to help us understand what had happened. The only appropriate solution seemed to be to publish no cover image at all—an all-black cover. Then Art suggested adding the outlines of the two towers, black on black. So from no cover came a perfect image, which conveyed something about the unbearable loss of life, the sudden absence in our skyline, the abrupt tear in the fabric of reality.”