As the U.S. government and its usual allies continue making noises about attacking Syria, Syrians have attacked the United States. To be specific, the hackers of the Syrian Electronic Army, an organization sympathetic toward but avowedly not affiliated with Bashar al-Assad's government, yesterday carried out their second successful attack in the last month against the New York Times website. In addition, they made an attack on Twitter. All of this is little more than counting coups, and as far as I can tell no one is treating these attacks as an additional casus belli on top of the alleged chemical-weapons attacks against the Syrian rebels that supposedly require punitive action from the international community. But attacks on news and opinion sites will certainly confirm the belief that the Syrian government and its sympathizers are enemies of freedom.
That's not how the Syrian Electronic Army sees itself, however. I tried to reach their homepage today but, to not much surprise, access to it is blocked. Wikipedia reports that the SEA vehemently denies being actual agents or hirelings of the government, but that may be a distinction without a difference to those who see Assad's Baath government as a totalitarian regime. From what I've read briefly about the SEA, it seems like they could be more anti-rebel than pro-Assad. They are mainly opposed to "lies" about their country in the global media. What lies are those? A purported SEA leader said this month that the "truth" about Syria is “There is no revolution in Syria, but terrorist groups killing people [and] accusing Syrian Arab Army.” The rebellion seems to be somewhat more than that, but whether it counts as a "revolution" is definitely open to question. Whether the rebels are the "good guys" in Syria is even more open to question, unless you work on the assumption that anything would be better than the incumbent dictator. The idea that dictatorship is any country's best option for any period of time is abhorrent to most westerners, and we can't really sugarcoat this option by denying that the Baath regime is a dictatorship or at least an "authoritarian" regime hostile to dissent. The SEA may wish to deny that Syria is a dictatorship, or they may characterize it as a benign "people's democratic dictatorship" like China's, or they may simply believe that Assad's kind of regime, warts and all, is Syria's best option at this point in history. Whether outsiders agree with their viewpoint or not, it should be conceded that the SEA has more right to opine on the appropriate form of government for their country than we outsiders have. It doesn't follow from that that they have any right to silence people, at home or abroad, who disagree with them (or "lie" about the rebellion), but the SEA sees itself in a state of war and is unlikely to respect the conventional niceties.
Last week's chemical incident put new pressure on President Obama, who has said that by using chemical weapons Syria would cross a "red line." If he's sweating now, it's his own fault for drawing such a line. Why are people so crazy about chemical weapons? For just about a century now they've been treated as an ultimate taboo of warfare. According to legend, even Hitler, who saw and felt their effects as a soldier in World War I, scrupled at the use of chemical weapons. Considering what Hitler permitted, you wonder again why chemical warfare is a matter for special outrage or a cause for punitive international action. I suppose it has something to do with an assumption that no one can escape a chemical attack, and maybe something more to do with an atavistic bias against an overly scientific (and less manly) mode of attack. A chemical attack seems to strike many as dishonorable the way any sort of missile weapon supposedly seemed dishonorable to oldschool swordsmen and axe-wielders. You get the impression that, presuming that Assad is guilty -- his government (and presumably the SEA) blames the rebels -- he might have outraged the world less had he simply dropped bombs on civilians. Does the world need to go to war with anyone who uses chemical weapons? Would that mean we'd be obliged to aid Assad if the rebels are to blame? Few Americans would take that theoretical seriously, but if you can't answer that question in the affirmative, than there should be no more moral obligation to aid the rebels if Assad is guilty. Arguably, attacking American websites is more a casus belli, if still not much, than the way Syria deals with rebels. Perhaps some independent volunteers who believe in freedom of information will cause mischief with Syrian websites and servers -- but I imagine plenty of that has been happening already. Such a conflict doesn't exactly inspire hope for the future, however. Technological proliferation theoretically gives more people around the world opportunities to speak out, but for every such opportunity there seems to be an opportunity for someone else to shut the first person up. If the liberal utopia is an unlimited global conversation, few around the world are buying.