Op-Ed, Opinion

OP-ED: Sophoclean righteousness bended: Obama’s standpoint on ISIS

Op-eds do not reflect the editorial opinion of The Daily Free Press. They are solely the opinion of the author.

Athens, the top force in Greece in 431 BC, battled Sparta in commencement of the Peloponnesian War. With Athens’ robust economy, advantageousness to trade due to Piraeus, the port from which many nations and empires benefitted, and well-equipped military, their victory seemed unquestionable. In fact, the war not only unanticipatedly spanned 27 years but also marked the ultimate decline of Athenian power.

Evidently, Athens seemed to have been unprepared to combat its weaker offenders. What led to Athens’ fall were the political philosophies driving its failed, inappropriate war game mechanisms. Athens employed principles encouraging extreme responses to threatening opposition. As depicted in Thucydides’ Mytilenean Debate, Cleon, Athenian statesman and general who assumed office in around 429 BC, believed in securing alliances by demonstrating power to the public: “Give these people the punishment they deserve, and set up a clear example for our other allies.” Consequently, Cleon instilled an atmosphere of fear and belligerence, thereby driving his state to instability. Additionally, this was conducive to Athens rapidly spreading itself too thin, constantly finding itself needing to meet aggression with a sharp counter in new contexts.

Sophocles’ words should have precautioned Cleon to instead pursue righteous thinking. Sophocles presents righteousness pairing with neighborliness, suggesting aggression not be met by more aggression, nonetheless supreme aggression, but rather peacefully by condonation, acceptance and self-strengthening. Through his depiction of Teucer in his tragedy, “Odysseus at Troy: Ajax, Hecuba and Trojan Women,” Sophocles criticizes thinkers who believe in pursuing extreme action: “you didn’t harden your heart to exalt maliciously over him like that frantic thunder-struck fool.” A thinker with Sophoclean righteousness would have been able to make decisions based on objective judgment with a sense of patience, determined to ensure more justice in time. Cleon later unfortunately proves himself a hard-hearted, malicious fool, having taken the approach Sophocles denounces and consequently crippling his state in doing so.

Does or should one, then, who is neither hard-hearted, malicious nor foolish, always take such peaceful, friendly action, even towards opposers, in order to maintain righteousness, friendly relations and strength in this world?

On Nov. 16, U.S. President Barack Obama declared his decision not to wage war in Syria, the current heart of ISIS. ISIS has been reported responsible for the tragedies experienced notably throughout Western Europe this past week. While Obama hopes to gradually intensify the United States’ participation in quelling related attacks, specifically by performing targeted airstrikes against ISIS, he continues to exhibit interest in preserving our nation’s relative peacefulness.

Our world today is abundant in advanced technology and weaponry. As a result, schemes behind attacks have been obscured and potential attacks have become more ominous. Yet, Obama’s standpoint still exhibits traces of Sophoclean righteousness. Obama’s approach can be easily misinterpreted to be too passive when compared to ISIS’ extreme one pressed against it. However, in this case, righteousness has been developed from what it had been in antiquity. Obama’s tacit response accordingly incorporates such righteousness bended.

Obama seeks to effectively and appropriately take violent action while remaining a good neighbor. Obama rejects the urging to demonstrate our nation’s strength by exercising utmost military violence: “What I do not do is take actions either because it is going to work politically or it is going to somehow, in the abstract, make America look tough or make me look tough.” Obama’s philosophies still oppose ones like Cleon’s, which we have seen to be essentially destructive. Obama resists pressure to prove American dominance in order to ultimately protect our nation. Instead he projects himself as a friend, furthermore seen by his welcoming Syrian refugees. Obama clearly seeks to preserve friendly relations and human rights on an international scale. Additionally, he heroically humbles himself while expressing his and thus encouraging our long-term faith in doing so.

Our world today undoubtedly presents us with great disparities from our ancient one. However, there are clear parallels in action demonstrated in both worlds that call for similar responses to succeed. Obama’s response to ISIS therefore suggests the long-term strength of particularly the United States at this time.

Jessica Miller, jmiller4@bu.edu 

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