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Do Americans Feel A Responsibility To Act In Syria?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later in the program, we'll hear from author MK Asante. He is a professor and an award-winning poet. And now he's written an explosive new memoir about growing up in Philadelphia with violence and drugs all around but also a love of words and ideas. That's later. First, though, we want to continue our conversation about Syria. President Obama addressed the nation last night. He talked about why America should be prepared to use force in Syria after two years of trying to address the conflict there through diplomacy.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The situation profoundly changed though on August 21 when Assad's government gassed to death over a thousand people, including hundreds of children.

MARTIN: And we just heard from Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican who's become a leading voice against U.S. military strategy. For our next conversation, though, we wanted to hear about conversations happening outside the nation's capital - at kitchen tables, town hall meetings, school houses around the country - so we've called three newspaper editors. Tod Robberson is editorial writer for The Dallas Morning News. Dana Coffield is city editor at The Denver Post. Suzanne McCabe is editor-at-large at Scholastic News in New York City. Scholastic is a news outlet that produces stories by and for school-age K-12 students. Thank you all so much for joining us.

DANA COFFIELD: Thanks for having us.

TOD ROBBERSON: Thanks for having us.


MARTIN: Tod, I'm going to start with you. You support a U.S. military response in Syria. Your editorial board has taken that position as well. What's guiding your thinking on this?

ROBBERSON: Well, we're just standing for what's right. You know, after the 9/11 attacks the rules kind of changed a little bit. The level of tolerance of the international community, but especially this country, changed. We know from Iraq that the United States absolutely drew a red line when it came to weapons of mass destruction. No other country in the world - 196 countries out there. No other country has dared use weapons of mass destruction since 9/11 except for one, and that's Syria. That was a red line and they crossed it.

MARTIN: I have to assume that just looking at the polls that the readers don't agree. Just looking at the polls, overwhelmingly, they seem to suggest that Americans, on the whole, are very, very skeptical of this. Is that what you're hearing? Or is it a little different?

ROBBERSON: Absolutely. You know, we don't have any vox populi, any street polls, that give us a good indication of what people do feel but we do have letters to the editor. And normally, the readers focus mainly on local issues, state issues, abortion, gun control, that sort of thing - they're not terribly engaged when it comes to international affairs. But on this one they are on fire. In the past two weeks, we've gotten 128 letters to the editor, which is very unusual for a foreign issue. At first they were running 100 percent against any kind of U.S. involvement. I would say now they're about 80 percent.

MARTIN: OK. Dana, what about you? I understand The Denver Post has taken a very strong opposite view.

COFFIELD: Yeah and I think that in our community we see the opinion as divided as it could possibly be. We've seen the expected groups of people gathering in prayer and fasting vigils at the behest of the Catholic Church, looking for prayer to solve the problems of violence in Syria. On the other side, we have people gathering on our capital steps saying we absolutely cannot enter into this conflict. But then we also have explored in our news columns the experiences of the diaspora in Denver and even those people who have left behind large family members, some of them have lost as many as a dozen members to violence during this conflict. They themselves are conflicted on whether we should intervene. And I think as someone mentioned earlier, why is it worse that people died by the use of poison gases when so many people have been killed by rockets and bullets in the last 18 months in Syria.

MARTIN: I want to say that the coverage of many of the members of the diaspora describing their own family's situations has been very moving and very powerful. Just talking about - everybody you talk to had lost someone, and often in just really gruesome ways and very painful ways. And your paper has said that Congress should say no, loudly and clearly, to the president's request for authorization of military strikes against Syria in response to its use of chemical weapons. This is from three days ago. What do you think is the guiding principle of the editorial board's point of view on this?

COFFIELD: I think that they're concerned that whatever we do won't be enough, that it won't actually change - that it will further destabilize the conditions in Syria and that, as Rand Paul said earlier in the segment, that it will make the humanitarian situation even more dire. And we know, anecdotally, from the people that we've talked to have been working in these refugee camps in Turkey and returning back to Denver with their stories, that the situation is not improving.

When the bombs hit Aleppo 18 months ago, it was horrible and it continues to be horrible for the people who live there. And I can - I probably shouldn't opinionate too much on it 'cause that's not my job, but I can see where the anxiety comes from, and following the lead even of our elected officials who, though they may tend toward wanting to intervene to heal - to help people who are victimized, they also seem to understand that we're not sure it's going to work.

MARTIN: And how are your readers responding to the position that the editorial board has taken on this? Do people generally agree? With the board - the board is saying - the editorial board has taken the strong position that the president's request for authorization of military strikes should be no. That there should not be U.S. military involvement. Do your readers tend to agree from what you're seeing, in letters and communication?

COFFIELD: I haven't seen a ton of letters to the editor. We've been involved in a lot of local politics, as Todd said earlier, that people are very responsive to that. And we just had the first recall election in state history of state lawmakers and we have been intently focused on that, as have our readers. So the feedback hasn't been so great. I anticipate after the speech last night that we probably will see a whole tranche of commentary coming in - weighing in.

MARTIN: Suzanne, your readership is a little different. The organization Scholastic is geared for young readers, for K-12 students. So I'm wondering - but Scholastic has a history of taking on these tough and sensitive issues. Like, you know, we note your coverage of 9/11 and consistently - which we are observing today. And I do want to say once again that I'm sorry for the losses in your own family here, which I know are probably weighing on your mind as well.

MCCABE: Thank you.

MARTIN: So I wanted to ask how you've been covering the story for children.

MCCABE: We started to cover this story for our middle school readers and our high school readers in Junior Scholastic in the New York Times Upfront. For the younger readers, we're waiting until there is possibly a concrete event before we layout the situation for them because it is so complex and difficult for them to wrap their minds around. But we've been discussing, you know, the Arab Spring now for several years in our magazines and now what looks like the failed promise and the complexities of the troubles in the Middle East.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are speaking with a group of journalists from around the country about Syria. We're wondering what they're thinking about and what they're hearing from readers about this story, about the crisis in Syria. Our guests are Suzanne McCabe, that's who was speaking just now, of Scholastic Magazine, Dana Coffield of The Denver Post, Tod Robberson of The Dallas Morning News. Suzanne, one of the issues that supporters of military intervention keep going back to is the horrific effects on children, and a lot of the graphic footage that we've been seeing includes a lot of graphic footage of children suffering from these attacks. And I'm wondering how you are thinking about this, and are kids asking about this?

MCCABE: Kids typically respond to these situations on an emotional level. They clearly don't have all of the information or the perspective to take in what's going on and often, unless they have a family who's a military member, they're not focused on these external events. But we do very carefully weigh every photo or image that we put into our magazines to make sure they're not too jarring. At the same time, we want to give kids accurate information and let them know what's going on. They often feel a great deal of empathy for other children who are suffering around the world.

MARTIN: Tod, you worked as a correspondent in the Middle East and you've stayed very interested in following, you know, events in the region. What about for the grown-ups? I mean, do you think that the media has done a good job overall in explaining the issues in the conflict to an American audience? And what about the president? I mean, do you think he's done a good job of explaining what he - how he sees the situation?

ROBBERSON: Well, my experience is that you can explain these things as much like. In the lead up to 9/11 the news media covered Al-Qaeda pretty significantly. I mean, it did a fairly good job of warning of the dangers of Al-Qaeda. People choose not to read the newspaper, not to listen to the news, not to pay attention and we can't make them do it.

But in this case, you know, if the American public chooses to tune it all out or just to kind of lump it all in as, oh, just another Middle Eastern crisis, you know, I can't handle it - that's their business. But these things have a way of coming back and slapping you in the face. The president did an OK job last night. I felt that he could've been more Churchillian. I think he really needed to make a stronger case to persuade the American public so that the American public would then turn around and tell their congressman what they felt was the right thing to do. He didn't do that.

And, you know, as Suzanne was saying, children have a basic sense of right and wrong. And if they saw these photos - I wouldn't wish these photos on anyone, certainly not children, but if they saw these photos they would know immediately something truly bad had happened. And if you were to ask a child - well, what should you do about that? I think a child would be hard-pressed to say, no we shouldn't do anything. That's just not right. Doesn't sound right to me. And so in boiling all this down, we just tried to get it to the very basic level. What's right in this? And that's why we took this position.

MARTIN: Well, but people don't agree about what's right in this. I mean, in one of the points that - Dana's coverage of the - The Denver Post's coverage of the Syrian diasporas living in the area - one of the points that they made is that there's been tremendous suffering of civilians throughout this conflict. So, Dana, I was wondering how people in the area responded to that reporting. I mean, the point is made that chemical weapons are horrible but people have been dying and suffering in horrible ways before those attacks. How do people feel about that coverage? Are you getting any response to that or is it the kind of thing where people just don't know what to think so they don't really say anything?

COFFIELD: I think Tod's a little bit correct with that. We can present all of this information but if you choose to take it in you don't - you can choose to take it in or not choose to take it in. The thing that was surprising to me was I kept hearing this sense of duty among the victims - that somebody died in the gas attack because he woke up in the middle of the night and there was a siren calling people to come help, help, help, help. And he ran out of his home to go help the people that had been - were initially affected and he himself was killed. And so people continue to have this sense of commitment to their country still, to their neighbors, to their friends that they can help and yet they keep being attacked and killed. And that's a little bit difficult I think for anybody to process. It's very difficult for us to process.

And this is slightly off-topic but we in Colorado have the nation's repository of sarin and mustard gas that dates back to World War II. And it sits down in these igloos outside of Pueblo, Colorado in these leaking containers and when, you know, one drop of this stuff gets out into these things they call igloos - the entire area locks down. They surround it, they try and figure out how to contain it and it is conveyed in our community to be such an incredibly dangerous thing and yet, when we see it actually deployed in the way it was quote-unquote intended to, we almost can't process that either. It's very interesting in our community.

ROBBERSON: Michel, if I could just comment on that. It's Tod. The senator, just before we got on, made reference to, well, people are dying from bullets and grenades and machetes and he didn't see really the difference - if you've got 100,000 dead by conventional means and 1,400 dead by chemical weapons, why make a big deal over these chemical weapons? But Dana just made the point for me - these weapons have a way of killing indiscriminately in ways that no other weapons can do. The reason they qualify as a weapon of mass destruction is that once they're released they're uncontrollable. They kill en masse anybody who's in the vicinity or they maim them in horrible ways. And that's what qualifies them as something different, something worth special attention by the international community.

MARTIN: Just very briefly, before I let each of you go, do people want to talk to you about this? I mean, when you go to the store, for example, you go to, you know, to back-to-school night or wherever it is, do people want to talk to you about it? Tod? Not really?

ROBBERSON: I try to avoid it as much as possible.

MARTIN: I can understand that, sure.

ROBBERSON: It's just - you know, if you get into these political discussions it's never-ending...

MARTIN: ...Sure.

ROBBERSON: ...It never ends well.

MARTIN: I understand. Dana, what about you? Do people want to talk about it?

COFFIELD: I haven't had a lot of people talking to me about it but I have to confess that I have a very visceral reaction to these stories when I edit them. And I'm, you know, I'm kind of a little bit hard-bitten after the past two years of news in our own community and felt myself, as I was editing this Sunday a piece that we had on the Syrian-Americans in our community, just crying. I felt terrible about it. I felt terrible that their families were split over the politics. I felt terrible that their families were shattered by bullets, bombs and poison gas. It's almost impossible for me to understand.

MARTIN: Suzanne, before we let you leave I just wanted to have a final thought from you, recognizing again that this is the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in which, you know, 3,000 people lost their lives, including a member of your family. And once again, we're so very sorry. Scholastic is going to write an article today about that. What are you telling your readers?

MCCABE: We're telling them about the - you know, the events that are taking place. The commemorations across the country. And this is a unique situation because our readers mostly were not born when the attacks happened. So for them to understand just how profoundly the country changed after the attacks is nearly impossible and we just want to give them a sense of the loss that people feel. And for myself, I was down in lower Manhattan this morning and really the sense of trauma is what reverberates for me on the anniversary. We feel - my family feels the loss of my brother every day. All of the people I know who lost loved ones feel their loss keenly but this day, just recalling the towers falling and the attacks - that's the hardest part.

MARTIN: You're in our thoughts. You and your entire family...

MCCABE: ...Thank you, so much.

MARTIN: ...And all who've lost loved ones. Suzanne McCabe is editor-at-large at Scholastic News, that's in New York. She joined us from our bureau there. Dana Coffield is the city editor at The Denver Post. She joined us from member station KGNU in Boulder. Ted Robberson is an editorial writer for The Dallas Morning News. We caught up with him in Dallas. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

MCCABE: Thank you, Michel.

ROBBERSON: Thank you.

COFFIELD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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