WASHINGTON – It’s not every day – or any day, really – that a middle-school teacher from Western New York gets to ask the secretary of state questions about the hottest issue in world affairs.
But it happened Tuesday, hours before President Obama was to address the nation about Syria’s recent use of chemical weapons against its own people.
Thanks to his activism on the Syria issue, Andrew Beiter, an eighth-grade teacher at Springville Middle School, found himself on a Google+ “hangout” – or video chat – with Secretary of State John Kerry, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and Lara Setrakian, who runs the Syria Deeply website.
And Beiter, in his first question to Kerry, went deep, asking the secretary of state a question raised by a Springville teaching colleague, Joe Karb.
“While everyone gets the major issues associated with the use of chemical weapons, why is it that there’s such a concern now and not for the past year and a half, in which the death toll has gone to six figures?” Beiter asked Kerry.
In response, Kerry noted that the U.S. has spoken out repeatedly against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s attacks on his own people. But he added: “There hasn’t been a will in the global community, let alone in our own community, to get involved in Syria’s civil war. That’s the way people see it, that it’s that kind of internal struggle.”
For his part, though, Beiter has been very involved. Apart from his teaching, Beiter is director of youth education at the Robert H. Jackson Center and a regional education coordinator for the U.S. Holocaust Museum.
What’s more, he founded the Summer Institute for Human Rights and Genocide Studies, which seeks to involve students in human rights activism and the prevention of mass murder.
And last year, the Summer Institute joined with David Crane, a former war crimes prosecutor who teaches law at Syracuse University, and Syrian human rights activist Ammar Abdulhamid to form IAmSyria.org, a website where students can learn about the Syrian conflict through interactive lessons.
All that work drew the attention of Setrakian, an oft-quoted expert on Syria. So when Setrakian scheduled a Google+ chat with Kerry, she invited Beiter to participate.
He drove down to the Google+ studio in New York to take part, and even though he said afterwards that he was nervous, Beiter looked like a polished interviewer, unafraid to ask the secretary of state tough questions.
Citing a question from a high school teacher in Dallas, Beiter told Kerry: “Her students are incredulous and want to know where the U.N. is at” on the Syria crisis. “If you can, just please elaborate: why, in your opinion, is the U.N. so visibly absent on this issue?”
Kerry responded by noting that Russia and China have repeatedly blocked U.S.-backed efforts to get the U.N. more involved – and by stressing that the U.S. must act now to protect its own long-term security.
There could be grave consequences for U.S. security in the long run if Assad’s use of chemical weapons were to go unpunished, Kerry said. That would mean, he said, that a century-old ban on chemical weapons had, in effect, expired and that U.S. troops might have to face them on the battlefield some day.
Beiter said he was pleased that Kerry had spelled out the stakes of inaction in Syria in such stark terms.
“We were all certainly impressed with the nuance in his answers and the depth in his answers,” he said.
Above all, Beiter said he was pleased that the half-hour session did just what he’s been doing for quite some time: spreading the word about the horrors the Syrian people are experiencing.
“I’m really happy with how things went,” Beiter said. “Anything we can do to get the word about the human suffering in Syria and any possible solution is music to my ears.”