The reactions to President Obama’s decision to use military force to prevent Bashar al-Assad’s remorseless Syrian regime from using more chemical weapons have puzzled me. (The photo here shows some victims of Assad's most recent attacks on his own citizens.)
The peacemakers, with whom I often identify, mostly want no part of holding Assad accountable for his grievous actions. The hawks, who occasionally are right, complain that the U.S. didn't stuff nukes (or something) down Assad’s throat a year or more ago.
And there I am in the middle wanting to stop Assad but also acknowledging that using violence to stop violence often leads to yet more violence.
Still, I cannot get Munich in 1938 out of my mind, when British leader Neville Chamberlain wrongly believed (or maybe just hoped) he had appeased Adolf Hitler enough to stop him from trying to devour Europe. And I can't help but remember the doomed 1939 voyage of the transatlantic liner St. Louis that was full of Jews seeking refuge, only to be turned away from the U.S. and sent back to face the Holocaust. And I can't help but think of Bill Clinton’s profound regret that he moved too late to stop the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.
And because my own nephew perished in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which were planned by al-Qaida in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, I can't help but think what we might have prevented if, earlier, we taken seriously this kind of terrorism rooted in a sick version of Islam.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who first made a name for himself as a Vietnam veteran arguing against that war as a witness at a Senate hearing, pointed to such a litany of errors when he addressed a hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives about authorizing a military strike in Syria:
“History is full of…moments where someone didn't stand up and act when it made a difference. And whether you go back to World War II or you look at a ship that was turned away from the coast of Florida (the St. Louis) and everybody on it lost their lives subsequently to German gas, those are the things that make a difference. And that's what's at stake here.”
Kerry’s inaccurate history notwithstanding (254 of the original 938 St. Louis passengers, not “everybody,” died in the Holocaust), his essential point was right: Evil appeased is evil empowered. And although we should always and everywhere work for and stand for peace as followers of the Prince of Peace, we also must recognize that we live in a fallen world in which sometimes it is necessary to engage in destructive acts to prevent even worse destruction.
The problem with that, of course, is that often our fingers are quick on the trigger and that we often don’t think through the possible consequences of our actions. A perfect example is the immoral war that gunslingers in the George W. Bush administration began in Iraq.
I remember being in a Kansas City Star editorial board meeting with Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, shortly after that war was launched. He was positive that within a matter of days we would find evidence of the weapons of mass destruction that the administration swore Saddam Hussein had. And, of course, we’re still waiting for that evidence.
So I understand and share an attitude of skepticism about what presidents and their cabinet members say about such things. I understand and share a profound commitment to find diplomatic solutions against high odds. But I also know that you cannot reason with irrationality and that to keep matters from getting worse, sometimes you have to slap down bullies and take away their weapons.
Prayer vigils for peace? Yes. Protests against money wasted on weapons when many of our own citizens are hungry? Yes. But not recognizing or trying to stop evil when we see it clearly, even while we acknowledge that we ourselves are capable of evil, too? No. That’s too costly.
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THE STATE OF RELIGIOUS LIBERTY ON THE PLANET
And while we're thinking globally today, here's a helpful interview with the United Nations man charged with keeping track of religious freedom around the world. Can you see the light of peace at the end of the tunnel yet?