In between lively chatter about the kickoff of the NFL season and the last episode of Breaking Bad, Americans are finally beginning to ponder the catastrophe taking place in Syria. Debate is swirling as to how the U.S. ought to react to a regime that in its use of chemical weapons has broken one of the few taboos of modern warfare.
Poison gas was developed and widely deployed during World War I. By some estimates, as many as one in four casualties in that global conflagration were connected with the use of toxic gasses. In June 1925, the Geneva Protocol was signed, outlawing chemical and biological warfare. Over the decades, nations that were busy slaughtering one another abided by this singular prohibition. Amazingly enough, when the Third Reich was going down in flames, even Hitler did not open the canisters -- at least not on the enemy. Our former ally, Saddam Hussein, was another story. As president of Iraq, he used chemical weapons to quell a rebelling Kurdish population. The U.S. and the international community sat on its hands and were not nearly as outraged as they now are at the Syrian government.
In a recent piece in the New York Times ("Bomb Syria: Even if it is Illegal," 27 August), Professor Ian Hurd persuasively argues that, sans a nod from the Security Council, we have no legal grounds for playing policeman to Syria. In an essay that was as much a critique of international law as anything else, Hurd observed:
"Syria is a party to neither the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972 nor the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, and even if it were, the treaties rely on the United Nations Security Council to enforce them -- a major flaw. Syria is a party to the Geneva Protocol, a 1925 treaty that bans the use of toxic gases in wars. But this treaty was designed after World War I with international war in mind, not internal conflicts."
And yet, as Hurd maintains there are worse evils than breeches of poorly developed laws. Thomas Aquinas and the natural law theorists instruct that political and geo-political laws have no force when they contradict the moral law. Put another way, when statues inhibit rather than nurture human flourishing, they are ersatz laws. As our own Civil Rights movement so forcefully attests, there are moments in history when laws and morality collide -- when the right thing to do is the unlawful thing to do. Is this one of them?
It all depends on our aims. The moral imperative has to be to stop the slaughter, not to punish Assad, or to deliver a warning that the use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated. Again, we mumbled a little but ultimately turned a blind eye when Hussein gassed his own citizens; which goes to show that at bottom we don't believe there is anything negatively sacrosanct about the use of chemical weapons.
Numbers don't seem to speak as loudly as YouTube videos these days, but by all accounts, 100,00 people have already perished in the strife in Syria. Millions have been displaced. Meanwhile, the harrowing machine is cranking at full tilt and if there is one thing that the fog of this war has made clear, it is that there is no limit to what Assad will do to retain power. But if President Obama elects to pull the trigger and let the Tomahawk missiles fly, the singular target of those missiles must be peace and the well being of the Syrian people.