With President Obama's recent request for military action in Syria, Congress is about to begin debating whether or not the United States should begin a missile strike against Syria in response to President Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians. As has become the norm in recent years, U.S. Politicians are trying to decide between 1) taking military action, and 2) doing nothing. I would like to propose a third option.
First, an analogy from the world of high-performance computing. Supercomputers have always been used to perform the massive numbers of calculations required to solve large-scale scientific problems, such as weather forecasting, analyzing the stress on mechanical parts, and aerodynamic modeling of vehicles. In the early 1990's, I was studying the many ways that computer engineers were using parallel processing to increase the performance of supercomputers by connecting hundreds of microprocessors together in a network and dividing a task into many parts. Each processor worked on the calculations for its part of the task, and the results were then combined as necessary to produce the final answer.
But as processor speeds increased and supercomputers employed more processors, the engineers ran into a problem. The processors were collectively capable of performing trillions of calculations per second, but communication among the processors had become a bottleneck—sharing data and results of intermediate calculations took a very long time due to the physics of transmitting signals throughout the computer. No matter how fast the calculations could be performed, the scientific problems could not be solved any faster because the speed was limited by the communication time. The engineers' solution was this: instead of solving the same problem in less time, they solved larger problems in the same amount of time. By changing the questions that they were asking and the problems they were trying to solve, they realized an improvement that had previously been considered impossible.
We can take a similar approach to the questions about Syria. The attack on Syrian civilians is by no means trivial, but it is a small problem when viewed from a global perspective. More importantly, refraining from an attack of our own does not imply or require doing nothing. People are rightfully upset that innocent people have been killed, and that more people are in danger and not being cared for. This one attack can provide insight into the much larger issue that faces us all—how to reduce hatred and violence, and how to better care for everyone. This is the larger problem that we can solve. And the place to start is not somewhere in the Middle East, but right here at home. The U.S. likes to think of itself as an paragon of virtue that sets an example for the rest of the world. But when it comes to caring for all of our citizens, we don't do very well. For example, we allow thousands to die every year because they lack the money for healthcare. We allow tens of thousands to go to bed hungry every night. We pay men more than women, and light-skinned people more than dark-skinned people for identical work. And we condemn millions to poverty because we often don't pay a living wage.
These are some of the larger problems that we can solve. But it requires that we take a look at our own attitudes and behavior, and change the questions that we are asking. “Should we punish Assad for using chemical weapons?” and “How can we send the message that the U.S. is powerful and resolute?” are small questions, and not the right ones to ask. We should be asking questions like “How can we best care for people, both in the U.S. and around the world?” “How can we make the world less violent and less hateful?” and “What can we do that will create the kind of world that we would love to live in?” Considering these questions and addressing the larger problems will set us on a path towards being an exemplar that is admired by others around the world. Choosing to solve our own large problems and care for everyone is the ultimate show of strength and determination. And taking the challenging actions required to solve the large problems will make us better people who are less hateful, less prone to violence, happier, and more understanding. As a result, we will be more loved and admired, and consequently less targeted by others as a threat to their existence, self-determination, and happiness.