09/05/2013 03:50 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2013

Parents, Presidents, Provocations and Principles

We, the parents, are accustomed to dealing with provocations. I suppose we parents might find ourselves in a real dilemma when one of our kids crosses some "red line," whatever that red line might be. For our purposes here, we needn't draw one in any particular place. Let's just assume it has something to do with the usual suspects -- sex, drugs, and rock n' roll, and variations on such themes -- and move on.

If we have some law and our kids issue the provocation of defying it openly, what are our options? We could choose to look the other way. But that is a pretty clear indication that we are toothless at best, hypocrites at worst -- inclined to say things we don't mean. Our authority would recede, respect for us erode. Our "laws" wouldn't be worth the kitchen table on which they were drafted. We would turn into our kids' piñata: To get what you want, simply throttle us.

We could, at the other extreme, go quite ballistic. One violation of our rules could evoke extremes of punishment, with permanent consequences all around. We might react so harshly that the punishment would alter our relationship with our child, and perhaps everyone else, forever. For instance, we might beat our child with a belt -- making our punishment worse than the original "crime."

But speaking parent-to-parent, I'm rather sure most of us have that combination of judgment and parenting experience that would guide us to a middle path. We cannot ignore challenges to the legitimacy of our authority and the merit of our rules, but we cannot overreact to every provocation either. The former invites disrespect, the latter invites escalation.

We parents know a thing or two about effective discipline. We know a thing or two about keeping to the patch of ground between war and anarchy. Domestic provocations are generally best addressed there.

And so, while most of us parents have no experience directing the use of Tomahawk missiles by submarines, I think we have some basis to weigh in about Syria. Foreign tyrants and feisty teenagers are different, of course; but they are both people, and subject to human impressions, and human reactions. Bullies are much the same, whether running countries, or running amok in the playground. Appeasement is a dubious policy in either venue.

We parents live the importance of preserving authority by maintaining respect every day. The leaders of nations face graver consequences, but similar choices. They have had advice about the importance of respect since Machiavelli at least.

As a parent, then, I see no way to ignore the flagrant violation of international law in Syria and not rue the choice. I realize as well that international law is violated often around the world. But we can't fix what we don't know is broken, and much of such abuse takes place in shadow. We cannot ignore a transgression on very public display without subjecting our hypocrisy to the same exposure.

I fully understand that the stakes here are higher. I am certainly glad that Bashar al-Assad is NOT my child! But the differences here are those of degree, not kind. The stakes of inaction here are higher, too.

We might be inclined to think we can opt out of hard choices because other nations are abdicating. But thinking again as parents, how impressed are we when our children point out that so-and-so's Father lets her party all night; or so-and-so's Mother lets him jump off bridges? We know right from wrong, and we know the reasons for the rules we make. If the rules lacked reasons, they shouldn't have been rules in the first place. The buck stops with us, and we don't base our decisions on peer pressure from the clan of more licentious parents. There is an imperative attached to doing the right thing simply because it is the right thing.

Unfortunately for us all, we don't get to live in a world of tepid domestic discord. Unfortunately, our issues extend from rock n' roll, to rockets carrying sarin gas. We live in a world of both restive teens, and renegade tyrants. We, the people, have reason to formulate opinions about both.

In my case, my impressions are also informed by my vocation. As a doctor, I have taken vows related to the sanctity of life and my commitment to protect it. But this dilemma of bad options highlights the fact that there is greater sanctity beyond life. Life is a biological condition, bestowed upon us. Living is populated by our choices; what we do defines who we are. The greater sanctity resides there.

I would hope that whatever action is taken now serves to reduce, not raise, costs in human lives, already far too high. I think prudent and measured action should do just that, just as prudent parental discipline defends our children from the dire consequences of bad judgment, exercised with abandon.

And so it is that I feel we cannot abandon our responsibility in this instance. Despite the many reasons I might be expected to vote the other way -as left-leaning public health type; as a physician devoted to the sanctity of life- I support a bracing dose of discipline. Inaction here offers no remedy; people are dying now, and horribly.

Life matters; but how we live it matters even more. I want a world where globally sanctioned standards of decency cannot with impunity be desecrated and thrown at our feet. I want my children to know that principles matter.

Edmund Burke famously said: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." Parents routinely find room for measured action between the anarchy of abdication, and excesses of passion that invite escalation. As a parent wishing fervently for a decent world to bequeath my children, and one day theirs, I hope- and believe- a President can and should do the same.


Dr. David L. Katz; author of the forthcoming 'Disease Proof'