There have to be lines.
We are not in the business of regime change. We cannot be the world's police. There are civil wars we won't stop, abusive leaders we won't depose, corrupt governments we will decline to see as such.
But there have to be some things that even the worst and most abusive leaders cannot do with impunity, and using chemical weapons against their own people has to be one of them.
It's obviously not about numbers, because there are other ways and other means, and dead is dead, and sadly, innocent civilians are frequent targets in the many wars in the world that we don't and can't stop.
The irony of the current situation is that it is the military — and especially Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey — that has been very reluctant, hesitant and downright against American military involvement in Syria. Indeed, Sen. John McCain went so far (too far) as to suggest that Dempsey and the president are at fault for signaling to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that he could get away with this.
I don't think any such signal was given.
If others do, that is all the more reason why the line must be drawn.
Why are there certain weapons that must not be used? It is like the child's question at Passover. There are many detailed answers out there right now, but the shortest one is because a civilized world must mean something. Human life must have value.
And responsibility means something.
It is August in California, the last week before school starts. Who wants to think about this?
What has always astonished me about the newspapers from the 1930s is just how much information there is on the front pages about Hitler, tucked right in with the weather and sports.
Assad has the world's attention. He may or may not get away with this — and possibly for reasons having nothing to do with us and about which we can do nothing. We are not, after all, in the regime change business. Drawing lines in the sand is another matter.
Few things are as disturbing to watch as an anti-American demonstration in some city across the globe. And it is clear, you can see and hear, that they hate us — you and me, our families and our faiths, we who try so hard, so many of us, to be generous and tolerant and fair. And this, as my mother would ask, is what we get for it?
The United States will not be more popular with those who hate us if we stand up for what is right. They won't see it that way.
The world won't be safer. Iran is threatening that if we attack they'll attack Israel, and Israelis are trying on gas masks, and by the way, what about Egypt?
Obama almost certainly will be attacked at home from all directions, as he usually is these days, for doing too little and too much, too soon and too late, for trying to find some balance in debates, which increasingly lack any at all.
I keep thinking about the young American men and women, somewhere in the world, who will be sending out the message loud and clear that there are some lines that cannot be crossed with impunity, some rules that even lawless regimes must follow, and that somebody, somewhere, actually does give a damn.
Godspeed to them.
(Susan Estrich is a professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California Law Center. A best-selling author, lawyer and politician, as well as a teacher, she first gained national prominence as national campaign manager for Dukakis for President in 1988.)