Few periods in western history are more disheartening to read about than the period between WWI and WWII. My latest reading on it is the second volume of William Manchester’s soaring three volume biography of Winston Churchill. It is a period when the world and its leading nations (most especially Great Britain, as the US was yet to assume it’s current role) simply turned a blind eye to the evil that was building in central Europe.
Today there does not appear to be evil on the horizon that will rise to the level of a Hitler, or a Stalin or a Mao, but there is much evil present in the world. A nuclear Iran would be capable of immense cruelty and destruction, though probably not to the level of those three. But the world continues to produce its share of homicidal despots, lesser only in scale but certainly not in intent. To a list that includes the likes of Saddam Hussein and Robert Mugabe, we can add the name Bashar al-Assad.
There are two levels of questions that should be asked in the wake of such evil – questions of State and questions of Morality. The questions of State revolve around the central issue of what are nations of good intent and will to do about such evil? Frankly at this point on matters of State, the more I think about the situation, the more I realize there are no good options, only better or worse of generally poor options. That is testament to the absolutely abysmal leadership of our current administration. Admit it or not, like Britain of the ’30′s for we are very much to the world now as they were then, we have stood by and closed our eyes to the building evil.
The polls would indicate there is not nor has there been the national will to do anything. That may be true, but there are times when our political leadership must shape, not follow, the national will. Evil like this is one of those times. This bunch, like the Baldwin government of 1030′s Britain, cannot shape Play-Doh. I am not alone in seeing these parallels. Good leadership would have a) found a way to cut this off before it got this far out-of-hand and b) used those efforts to inform and stir the nation.
But here we are. And with no good options open to us, how do we decide what to do? This is where the Moral question comes into play.
Hitler comparisons are almost always overwrought. Nonetheless, ask yourself this question – What represents the greater evil? – The organized and highly, if disgustingly, targeted application of poisonous gas or the indiscriminate use of same amongst an entire populace? Is evil measured purely in numbers?
Some might argue that we cannot condemn the use of WMD lest we condemn ourselves. Nonsense. Any reasonable read of history reveals that the culture and society of Japan during the war was such that there were no innocents, no “mere civilians.” Nor did we use WMD in the context of a civil war. We did not turn them upon our own populace.
Some would argue that we have let gas attacks pass before. We certainly have claimed a lack of intelligence for Assad’s earlier and smaller gas attacks. The same is said about Husein’s gassing of the Kurds. With regards to Assad’s early attacks, that would appear a dodge. The current attack leaves no doubt. With regards to Hussein and the Kurds, given that people are still combing through intelligence materials to make a final determination it seems more reasonable. But such precedent does not make the attack any less evil, it only gives us a stake in the evil.
The bottom line is that what has transpired in Syria is wrong; it is evil. Good nations cannot sit idle. The answer to the Moral question demands that while the question of State has no good answers, it cannot be allowed to go unanswered.
The moral authorities of our nation, its churches and synagogues and temples, seem to be sitting and watching, claiming these things are purely a matter of state. – Or WORSE. Again I say – Nonsense! Much that is the decline of western culture can be traced to similar claims of the church in Hitler’s Germany, and similar sideline sitting by the church in Britain when it should have been prodding its government to action. In it’s hand washing, the church sacrificed its moral authority and has been losing it ever since.
The question of what to do is indeed a matter of state, but the question of “Should we do something?” is not. The time for idleness is at an end.
Regarding what to do, I think Bret Stephens has the best idea I have heard to date. Remember, we have backed ourselves into a place where there are no good options.
But the moral fact remains – we must act.