This past week, on 9/11, we paused. This "where-were-you-when" event resonates so deeply that we must assign a symbol, a group of numbers, to encapsulate the inexpressible -- the horror and response, the tragedy and resolve.
We are still coming to terms with the repercussions of 9/11, and what they say about us as a nation. We recognize our character in our resilience, in our compassion and in our assistance to each other. The character of America was also reflected in the sympathetic and supportive response from most of the world.
This past week, we paused for another reason as well. We paused to consider our response to an atrocity elsewhere -- the use of chemical weapons in Syria, which killed over 1,400 adults and children.
Historians, perhaps decades in the future, will have to sort through the maze of causes, effects and concurrent events that turned Syria -- a country of limited strategic interest to the U.S. and modest oil resources -- into a proxy for the geopolitical, almost-anything's-wild poker game.
Action-and-reaction is not just a chemical process, but a political one, too. At its start, the Arab Spring seemed to follow the path of revolutions and popular uprisings. Decades-old dictatorships were overthrown; women -- long oppressed -- began demanding equality and becoming leaders of empowerment. (In Saudi Arabia, women are defying a ban on their driving. It seems tyranny sustains itself by suppressing even the trivial.)
In reaction to the democratic impulses sweeping the Middle East, a region that remains fluid and volatile, autocrats and dictators attacked, killed and often terrorized their own citizens, frequently from behind political barricades.
The Arab Spring has moved into a different season, except, it seems, in Syria, where the two-and-a-half year civil war is no longer an internal affair, but the hole card on which Russia, China, Iran, the U.S., France, Great Britain, Israel, Turkey and others are betting.
But the rules of the game, or the players, and even the hole card itself, keep shifting. Al-Qaida-affiliated groups in Syria want their own nation-state. Yet even they are split: One faction sees Syria as the first step toward a world-wide caliphate, while another seeks to force its country's largely secular people into rigid obedience of its religious rules.
The McClatchy newspaper chain has one of the best teams of reporters in the Middle East, and ran an excellent, in-depth article on the rebels.
Ash Shaddadi is a northern city in Syria captured in February by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Nusra Front (pledged to al-Qaida) together. The better-organized Nusra quickly took control of the city, selling equipment they captured for more than $40 million.
McClatchy's report says, "Nusra intends to control the entire mineral wealth of the region." Nusra controls the town's gas plant, and won't share the fuel unless the town adopts Sharia law.
By contrast, the Free Syrian Army controls Deir el Zour, a city 80 miles south of Ash Shaddadi. The rebels there have an arrangement with the Syrian government: They ship the gas to the Assad regime, which, in turn, distributes it throughout the country.
Syria today is a patchwork of competing sects, with the targets of Assad constantly shifting. Perhaps desperation led him to use chemical weapons, after weeks of shelling failed to rout the rebels.
Whatever the reason, there can be, by international consent, no justification for the use of chemical weapons. President Obama spoke to that in his Tuesday address from the East Room. He challenged us to look at the lights reaching to the heavens from where the Twin Towers stood, and consider our response.
America is justifiably war-weary. Most of us have a Syria-is-none-of-our-business attitude. But dare we be lethargic or indifferent when a dictator starts gassing children?
We must be flexible and circumspect, and that is Obama's approach. It always has been, I think. The president's critics are vocal, and usually consistent only in their opposition. Others urged immediate intervention. Obama wanted congressional approval for a directed, limited strike. He is willing to wait for United Nations confirmation of our intelligence.
Obama prefers diplomacy to war, and laid the groundwork for a diplomatic solution in private conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. If -- and Obama recognizes it as a big if -- Syria's stores of chemical weapons can be removed and destroyed, peacefully, it will be a quiet victory for the president, obtained because he allowed others (such as Putin) to take credit.
Many of Obama's opponents dismiss this approach as unworkable and a delaying ploy, as if he does not recognize the possibility of a bluff. He does, and he will call it.
The president has shown himself to be flexible, but resolute. His call for a strike is not for its own sake. If the objective can be achieved peacefully, so much the better.
The threat is stronger than the execution. And the threat of an American air strike, in reaction to Syria's use of chemical weapons, is very real to Assad, and to Putin. It is that threat that motivated the diplomatic moves. Let's hope it works.