Both U.S. Rep Jim Himes and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal told a packed audience at Darien Library on Sunday that they were skeptical about the wisdom of bombing Syria, and what they heard from the public was mostly strong opposition.
The audience -- which packed the room and flowed outdoors -- was asked for a show of hands on whether or not President Obama should order bombing of locations in Syria in retaliation for that government allegedly using chemical weapons against its people.
The show of hands also indicated that a bit more than about 10 percent were in favor and just under 10 percent were unsure. The statements from those who spoke at the meeting, however, were less lopsided.
Himes began the meeting by saying that the intelligence briefings he had been given as a member of Congress suggested that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons against its civilians. He characterized the intelligence as strong but not water-tight.
"I'm deeply skeptical at this point, but I've got a lot of questions that need to be answered," before he makes up his mind, Himes said.
Blumenthal said, "We have to consider what military action means in potentially complicating us in [...] a civil war."
Whenever speakers strayed too far from Syria and into U.S. foreign policy and history in general, members of the audience shouted "Irrelevant!" and angrily told the speakers to get back to the subject.
Other than that, the crowd listened patiently in the hot, packed room and frequently applauded at the end of a speaker's comments.
Blumenthal and Himes each said that messages coming into their offices were strongly opposed to military action. Himes said the proportion was 2:1 opposed. Blumethal said, "The same is roughly true in my office."
The comments from the audience ranged from people who supported military action, people who opposed it and cited their distrust of the U.S. government in general to act responsibly abroad and those who opposed action because they distrusted President Obama to act responsibly.
Ted Diamond of Westport said he was a combat veteran of World War II who opposed involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan but favors military action here:
"I think today Assad crossed the line and I'm in favor of sending him a message that you cannot do this kind of reprehensible act against civilians."
A woman from Ridgefield said she opposed the Vietnam war but agrees with Obama when it comes to Syria: "My concern is if we do not deter the use of chemical weapons and degrade his capacity, there will never be an incentive for him [Assad] to save his own skin and go to the negotiating table."
Linda Czaplinski of Oxford said: "We don't trust the intelligence. We don't trust our government. [...] We have been betrayed by the IRS [...] by the NSA [National Security Agency]. [...] This administration has taken this country into a place where we're not respected or feared [...] We have inadequately calculated the backlash. [...] Let that region take care of itself."
A man from Fairfield said he was deeply suspicious of Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, who had opposed other military actions in the past, were now pushing for this one. He said they and supporters of the president seemed to be in favor only out of loyalty to Obama after his "red line" statement from months ago appeared to commit the U.S. to act if chemical weapons were used.
A woman from Fairfield said the U.S. shouldn't bomb unless the intelligence information convinced them that bombing would force Assad to negotiate with the rebels -- or kill him.
Mike Gilbertie of Westport said he thought the military strike would be too limited to accomplish anything.
He said Obama should get an international coalition to invade Syria, capture Assad "and bring him to trial as a war criminal. [...] Once we get out, we should turn our attention to Iran."
A Monroe woman who immigrated from Syria with her family when she was eight years old and who frequently visited that country said she was much more worried about radical Islamist rebels than she was about Assad. "I beg of you," she told Himes after Blumenthal had to leave the meeting early, "don't judge everything by the book [...] cover."
"Before you cast a vote to send more of our children and send more people [...] to their death, weigh the evidence," she continued. "If there's any doubt, you must cast a 'No' vote." Her statement got the most applause of anyone's at the meeting.
A Stamford woman, referring to radicals in the rebel movement and the record of the Syrian government, said: "Our getting involved in the Syrian civil war is like Alien vs. Predator -- no matter who wins, we lose."
Amy Lipton of Greenwich said failure to counter a government that used chemical weapons "will send an extraordinary message of weakness to the rest of the world, particularly to Iran, which might conclude that the U.S. wasn't serious about preventing that state from getting nuclear weapons.
Blumenthal said the country should not be taking military action with public opinion strongly opposed to it.
"Your opinions will matter to me," as he considers his own votes, the senator said. "What I have heard here is enormously impactful. A lot of it has been insightful and informative. I have learned from what you said."
Editor's note: Darien Government television, TV79 tweeted this message at 5:58 p.m.: "Congressman Himes town meeting on Syria will air tonight at 7:45 and 9:27 pm and Monday 8:52 am and 5 pm.