Mysterium iniquitatis and the thin red line

The images are haunting. Bodies in white shrouds, lying side by side, unmoving. Many are small children, their eyes not quite closed, as if they had simply been put down for a nap. Nearby a father sits holding two small boys, their bodies limp in his arms, weeping, rocking back an forth, his disbelief and sorrow a wrenching thing to behold. All had been gassed, we're told, when shells, launched by the Assad regime, released a killing mist of sarin gas that enveloped whole neighborhoods, causing a slow and terrible suffocation. Of the 1,429 Syrians who died on that awful day, more than 400 were children.

This stunning event graphically reminded us that indeed there is evil in the world. But this was not the familiar desolation of buildings reduced to rubble, streets cratered and littered with dusty rock. This was beyond war, beyond the abstract number of 100,000 Syrians already killed.

Of course the world community would rise up in moral outrage and some would voice that singular, declarative sentence, formed in the crucible of the Holocaust: "never again." And the collective condemnation would reflect the words of theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote, "Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act."

President Obama, certain that all nations shared his outrage — how could they not? — declared that Syria had crossed a red line, a line he first mentioned in comments made in August of 2012.

Those three words, "a red line," implicitly indicated that the use of a weapon of mass destruction would be unacceptable and consequences would follow. He would now act. And the world, he assumed, would be with him. This was, after all, a universally agreed upon norm, codified in the 1925 Geneva Protocol, post-World War I, indicating that there are some weapons so horrible, by definition and by outcome, that the world community will not use them.

The protocol came about after the combatants in World War I freely used tear gas, mustard gas, phosgene and chlorine on the field of battle. And it is the Geneva Protocol that Obama's aides are referring to when they refer to a red line established more than 80 years ago.

History tells us that this line has been crossed countless times by nations resulting in little more than worldwide denunciation, meaning words that vanish like so much smoke in the wind.

Clearly Nazi Germany used chemical weapons (Zyklon B, a cyanide-based gas) in a systematic attempt to exterminate a people (1.2 million were gassed in camps such as Auschwitz). No matter that the allies were given irrefutable evidence — eyewitness testimony and reconnaissance photos of people being led to the gas chambers. They remained silent. Was this not a red line?

Two weeks ago Assad's forces dropped napalm on a school's playground, resulting in children being horribly burned and disfigured. White phosphorous and napalm were weapons used prodigiously in Vietnam by America, resulting in the iconic image of a young girl running from the carnage, her clothes burned off, her skin peeling in thin strips. America also used a chemical defoliant, Agent Orange, sprayed from the air, meant to destroy the lush rain forest canopy, thus depriving the enemy of cover. Its impact on the people below, on noncombatants, was devastating (cancers and birth defects resulted). Were these not red lines?

What President Obama is now confronting, perhaps unexpectedly, is the silence not just of the international community, which rejects any form of retribution, but that of his own Congress. And though our nation may recoil at the use of sarin gas on the innocent, our response to what theologians call mysterium iniquitatis, the mystery of evil, has been muted. As it was when Saddam Hussein gassed his own people, Kurds living in the north.

The difficulty that Obama faces is that the outrage he feels is not easily transferred into action. His appeal for consequences is righteous — this must not stand — but it was quickly rebutted by. among others, the British, who cited a slippery slope. Will cruise missiles significantly alter the trajectory of the civil war in Syria, or impress upon that country's remorseless dictator that he should abandon his willingness to kill his own people by any means available? Likely not.

What the recent sarin gas attack on the innocent does is present the world with a moral dilemma, a conundrum of immense proportions that we would rather not confront and so, instead, we debate and agonize, search desperately for solutions, while others wait, hoping that time will diminish the impact of the images of those swaddled children now stilled forever. And of course we will ignore once again the meta-question: Isn't war the ultimate red line?

Chris Honoré lives in Ashland.

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