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Pyle: When something must be done

Published September 6, 2013 5:36 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

"I have no idea what I'm supposed to do. I only know what I can do."

— Capt. James T. Kirk (the new one)

"Something must be done. This is something. Therefore we must do it."

— Prime Minister Jim Hacker

The former of these two fictional characters is a hero, star of the enduring legend of "Star Trek," who said this on his way to being heroic.

The latter is an amiable dunce, central character in the British comedies "Yes, Minister" and "Yes, Prime Minister," who said this on his way to bumbling past a political disaster, through sheer luck and the unseen, even by him, efforts of the civil servants who really run the world.

But both of them are saying the same thing.

Something bad is happening, or about to happen. I have power. Maybe not enough power to stop said bad thing, but power nevertheless. It would be wrong of me on every level imaginable to sit back and not at least try to apply that power to stop this bad thing.

Sounds about as morally upright as one can be. Certainly the motivation for noble actions taken by fictional heroes as different in character as Superman and Han Solo, Robin Hood and Rick Blaine.

So, here we are, in the real world, where people really die most horrible deaths, where risking more lives to save them, even with unquestionably pure intentions, may or may not work, may or may not make things worse.

Here is where Barack Obama, once admired by many for his desire to end wars rather than stop them, for his capacity to deal rationally with cognitive dissonance and paradoxes, is finding it so hard not to pull the lever and drop bombs on Syria that he is all but begging Congress to stop him.

Which it may well do, as soon as this week.

It is maddening to hear some of the same politicians who couldn't wait to launch a full-scale invasion of Iraq, on the basis of reports that turned out to be false, now counsel against the unknown blowback that might follow the lobbing of a few cruise missiles at Syria, based on facts that are not in dispute.

(Perhaps the reason they are not in dispute is that we all know that the National Security Agency has bugged every phone and web server in the world.)

But it won't be the first time that happened.

After the First World War, many smart people concluded that war was never, ever justified. Which is what happens when millions of people are killed in a war that really wasn't justified in any way. It was that hangover that kept the world from dealing as soon as it might have with the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy.

One of those smart people who struggled publicly with the problem was British writer A.A. Milne, who wrote a scathing condemnation of war after the first one, in which he served, called "Peace With Honour."

But, when Hitler threatened the world a decade later, Milne tried to call the civilized world to arms with a book called "War With Honour." By then, though, Milne had become world famous as the creator of Winnie-the-Pooh, and nobody felt a need to take him seriously.

Here's what we need to take seriously. Give someone a powerful tool and they will have to demonstrate almost superhuman forbearance to avoid using it. Jimmy Carter at Desert One. Bill Clinton in Kosovo. George W. Bush in Iraq and Afghanistan. Barack Obama in Pakistan and, maybe, Syria.

The NSA hacking your cell phone. The Utah Department of Transportation paving everything in sight. Refineries dumping poison into your air.

Institutions, and the people who run them, become like machines, carrying out the tasks for which they were designed. Even when it might be a really bad idea.

George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, wrote this because, well, it is what he does. gpyle@sltrib.com

Twitter: @debatestate