Updated: October 8, 2013 6:06AM
As every police officer knows, few situations prove more dangerous to would-be peacemakers than a scene of domestic violence. Many times, those who mean only to serve and protect become the entire household’s enemy, and whatever additional mayhem ensues inevitably becomes their responsibility. Still, they must respond. Doing nothing is not an option.
The same story line plays out all too often these days in the ever more enmeshed neighborhood of nations. At the moment, Syria has become the troubled family unit that demands our attention. By all accounts, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, like his father before him, controls his fractious nation by creating a reign of terror. Uniformed soldiers and assorted thugs on Assad’s payroll have reportedly killed 100,000 Syrian citizens over the past two years in response to initially peaceful demonstrations calling for regime change.
Up to now, we neighbor nations have watched with alarm but mostly responded with hand-wringing. However, now that Assad has apparently murdered a thousand or so citizens, half of them children, with chemical weapons, someone finally called the cops, so to speak. “Now,” we say, “a red line has been crossed. We can no longer stand by. We must respond, if only so that other tyrants don’t take laxity for license.”
If this were a local tragedy, we would not tolerate inaction. If we let some crazed family member in our town shoot up or gas an entire household without trying to intervene, the court of public opinion would rightly condemn our inaction as a reprehensible sin of omission and a moral failure.
Syrian citizens and expatriates live in my town and attend the university where I teach. They are good, kind people and trustworthy neighbors who contribute significantly to our community’s general welfare. They are also hurting and frightened for loved ones and family members still in Syria. “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” is not among the songs we can ask them to sing with us these days.
But what shall we do? Our congressional leaders have now begun to grapple with that question, and as always, with each other. Some call for restraint, an additional time of doing nothing. Others urge that we punish Assad for crossing that awful red line by dropping some bombs, shooting some missiles and destroying some of his stuff — “surgically,” of course, so we don’t inadvertently kill someone’s children in the process. As if it were possible to make war without such atrocities.
Simply put, there are no truly good or unmistakably moral options. No matter how long the members of Congress, the president’s cabinet and all the pundits in the world flail around trying to find them, and despite all their verbal assaults on one another as they thrash about, they will not find a righteous course of action. If we do nothing, innocents will die. If we shoot missiles, however few, innocents will die. Moreover, none of us can calculate the cascading, long-term fallout of either primary option or their sundry permutations.
The theological tradition in which I was raised teaches that every serious crisis or crossroad in life falls under that same shadow. We’ll sin no matter which path we choose, but since we cannot go back to fix the past and must move forward, we do so with genuine pleas for forgiveness in our hearts and on our lips. We repent of what we must do, even as we do it.
Also, we weep for ourselves, and for our children, doggedly hoping that someday, the mix of tears and repentance will wash away our craven taste for war.