I am writing on Labor Day. For several days now, all the talk shows have been debating the question at hand. I have watched a few of of these, but I have yet to hear Just War Theory applied to the crisis. So, I will try to fill in that blank.
Just War Theory comes from Roman and Christian traditions. For this column, I will use simply one of many articulations of this theory — the authoritative Roman Catholic teaching confirmed by the United States bishops in 1983 and found in the catechism of the Roman Catholic Church. There are four conditions for the legitimate defense by military force, which I will respond to one by one.
(1) "The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave and certain." Few would argue that the use of sarin gas on civilians by their government, including more than 400 children, is not "lasting, grave and certain."
(2) "All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective." Russia would veto any United Nations resolution. So, the U.N. has been ineffective, along with all other diplomatic efforts.
(3) "There must be serious prospects of success." This point will most likely be at the heart of the upcoming congressional debate. Many in Congress want to offer some kind of response, but whether sending cruise missiles, for example, would be successful in halting the use of chemical weapons is debatable. Wouldn't missiles perhaps encourage the Syrian government to retaliate, perhaps even using sarin gas, thus killing many more people? Congress will be debating whether killing more people will stop the killing of civilians.
(4) "The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated." The catechism goes on to add, "The power as well as the precision of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily on evaluating this condition." Again, this will be a debatable point in congressional discussions. Violence, judging from history, usually leads to more violence, often much worse than the original violence. However, we have the lessons of Munich, the world's blindness and inaction when Hitler was mass murdering Jews, gypsies, mentally ill people and others before and during World War II. We also have the lesson of Rwanda, which President Clinton did nothing about, something he regrets to this day.
One lesson 9/11 taught us is the concept of "blow back." Osama bin Laden gave as his reason for the 9/11 attack was America's military presence in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War, which he thought desecrated Islamic holy sites. That is blow back. His demise is another example of blow back. Hitler's invasion of Poland led to World War II, and Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor led America to declare war on Japan — which in turn led to Hitler's biggest mistake, his declaration of war on America. That is all blow back.
The movie "Argo" began with another example of blow back. The 1953 overthrow of the elected Iranian government by the British and American intelligence agencies led to the Iranian hostage crisis years later.
Blow back simply means there are consequences to our actions, and sometimes those consequences are only seen decades later. What would be the blow back of letting a nation use sarin gas on men, women and children, with action from the world community? I fear the thought.
What will be the blow back if America attacks Syria? What will be the blow back if President Obama does not get congressional backing for what he wants to accomplish in Syria? Will he go it alone? And what would be the blow back of such action?
My own view is that as the world stands by and watches hundreds of people dying from sarin gas, America cannot also stand by and merely watch.
People argue that Syria, including its use of chemical weapons, is not our problem. After all, more than 100,000 have already died by conventional weapons.
I beg to differ. The use of sarin gas is a moral outrage even over and above the use of conventional weapons, and uniquely challenges our common humanity.
I don't know what America should do in response to Assad's use of sarin gas. I will leave that to the experts. However, doing nothing for me is not an option, and I back up that statement with Just War Theory.
Congress may very well vote to do nothing; but, of course, that has been its habit since President Obama was elected!
— By the Rev. Henry Idema, Tribune religion columnist