On the night before Labor Day, as Barack Obama was hustling to assemble a coalition of nations and congressional representatives willing to back his plans to bomb Syria, we settled in to our living room to watch the fourth episode in what, for my money, is an all-too-tedious but absolutely riveting final season of AMC’s Breaking Bad.
In this episode, Walter White is desperately seeking a meeting to explain to his junior partner, Jesse Pinkman, his rationale for poisoning a 6-year-old boy who happened to be the child of Jesse’s girlfriend. Jesse has come to the conclusion that White is a monster, and doesn’t want to listen to him. He screams again and again his anguish that White continues to get away, literally, with murder.
Another high-profile character— Walter’s wife, Skyler—has reached a point where her fear has so numbed her conscience that she wants Walt to kill Jesse, his former student with a love for methamphetamines.
Drunk, but not drunk enough, the annoying Skyler White asks her husband, who won’t die of cancer fast enough for her taste, without any trace of irony, “What’s one more?” After Walt has killed (here my count might be off by a meth head or two) 15 or 16 former co-conspirators, risked the lives of his brother-inlaw and one 6-year-old boy and watched as one of his co-workers killed a teenage witness to one of their crimes, Skyler asks him, matter-of-factly, “What’s one more?” In the dance now going on about our policy in Syria, the part of Walter White is being played by Barack Obama. A large segment of the U.S. population, I fear, has slipped into a Skyler-like numbness at the horror of it all.
Bomb Syria? What’s one more?
As this episode of the War on Terror slowly moves toward its inevitable climax with bombs over Damascus, I find myself asking, where’s Jesse? Who has both the clarity and the stature to stop this madness masquerading as reason?
Walter White turned himself from mild-mannered chemistry teacher to the monster he has become by employing a simple kind of logic. With each step down the ladder into his personal hell, Walter convinces himself that he does what he does because has no choice. “There was no other option,” he insists again and again. That sentence is as ubiquitous in Walter White dialogues as are his frequently displayed jockey briefs in his wardrobe. (Note to the AMC marketers: Gratuitous overuse of the tighty whiteys is hurting you big time in the 20-29 female demographic. My daughter won’t even enter the room while we are watching the show for fear of seeing a spindly legged high school chemistry teacher in his undies).
Obama finds himself employing the same excuse that White uses to justify each of his killings: “There were no other options.” Each time the national security state extends its reach—Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya—it’s the same rationale: We had no choice. We have to keep our family, our nation safe.
After a while, when you’ve dropped enough bombs on enough places, you can’t help but ask, as Skyler asks Walter, what’s one more?
What a tragic admission of our lack of imagination. Twelve years into the mislabeled “War on Terror” and we still have no options other than those destined to create more terrorists. No options other than to display our macho to anyone who might be watching. What we are really displaying, it turns out, is how easy it is to manipulate a superpower into acting against its own interests and the values of its people.
Of course Assad is a bad boy. Most of the people Walt has done away with were as bad or worse. (By definition, meth dealers all use chemicals against civilians). Wouldn’t it feel good, wouldn’t the world be better, if they were eliminated? Hasn’t the world become a nicer place since Walter blew up Gus Fring (a textbook example of regime change)? Is he feeling more secure since he ordered the prison execution of nine of Mike’s guys before they had the chance to squeal on him? Just kill off one more bad guy, and then Walt can retire, leave it all behind, raise the kids in peace.
When Obama launches the raid on Syria, it will be a military action in the Middle East undertaken for just one reason: We have to do something because we said we would do something. We have no other option.
Except we have plenty of options. One of them would be to stay the hell out.
Another answer to the danger of continued use of chemical weapons might be to distribute antidote kits, as Israel is doing, to protect civilians from nerve gas. Or maybe we should come to the realization that there are no good military options in this case. That might open up our imagination.
Obama now seeks the counsel of the Congress, starting with the Republican hawks who love to goad him on. He might find more wisdom in the outraged shriek of a methhead who dropped out of high school. Where is Jesse Pinkman when we need him?
Read Ed Griffin-Nolan’s award-winning commentary every week in the Syracuse New Times. You can reach him at [email protected]