09/16/2013 02:27 pm ET Updated Nov 16, 2013

We Cannot Remain Bystanders

War is hell, no doubt about it. But as in Dante's Inferno, there are separate circles of hell. Those who kill their own people with chemical weapons should surely be relegated to the ninth circle where Satan awaits them.

President Obama is right to remind us of the stomach-turning pictures of rows of white shrouded corpses and hundreds of children who will never wake up from their ghastly nightmares. This crime is different from other war crimes. It demands an international response, led by the United States.

Why us? Congress and the American people are asking. We are exhausted and still grieving after 10 years of war. Too much blood has been shed, and too much treasure has been expended. We have been lied to before about weapons of mass destruction, why should we believe you now?

One of the most excruciating decisions a president must make is when and whether to enter battlefields beyond our shores. Clinton decided to abstain in Rwanda, and regretted it. He used force in Bosnia, and halted the killing.

I understand our reluctance. I spoke publicly against the war in Iraq. I tend to be a pacifist. But not this time. I may be influenced by the fact that my father was gassed in World War I, that members of my family were exterminated in Hitler's poison gas chambers.

Still, we cannot retaliate against Bashar al-Assad based on personal experience alone. The president is taking the right action by taking a time-out to seriously analyze the Russian proposal to assert international control over Assad's chemical weapons.

If there is any possibility of avoiding military action and achieving the same goal through diplomacy, we have to expend every ounce of energy to make that happen. But we also have to keep the heat on and not submit to obstruction and deliberate delay.

They say that the generals are always fighting the last war. Our example is Iraq and Afghanistan. But our choice in Syria is different: The president has assured us there will be no boots on the ground, no regime change. The sole purpose is to prevent the use of chemical weapons ever again.

We cannot remain bystanders to the mass murder of innocent civilians. We may have to be patient, but not forever. And if diplomacy should fail, we have to follow our moral convictions with limited military force, with the support of the international community, and the United States Congress.