The really interesting question about Syria is one of national sovereignty in the 21st century.
Imagine that you think family is the most important social institution. Imagine further that the family next door is in turmoil. Your neighbor - exercising his authority as head of the house - is beating his wife. The question is, do local authorities have any right to intercede?
That's not a hypothetical question. "Rule of thumb," came from a law that a man was not allowed to beat his wife with a rod any thicker than his thumb. That was the beginning of intervention in the sanctity of the family. The community finally decided that the right of the "man of the house" to rule as abusively as he wanted was not as important as the rights and safety of his wife and children. The state now intervenes. (And even that is complicated if the wife doesn't want to press charges.)
Now the man of the house whose authority is being questioned is the head of state.
After the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, the prince was able to rule without interference. National sovereignty was the new authority, the nation-state becoming the ultimate authority to replace the church in that role. Whether the prince was a despot or benign (or even was deposed and replaced with a democracy), the rest of the world was to respect his right as the ruler. Nations were sovereign and were free to work out their own issues and decide for themselves how best to treat or abuse or even kill their citizens. Nations could put down revolts, practice genocide, let the homeless die on the street, refuse medical care to the unemployed, allow abortions, practice capital punishment, kill religious outlaws,or gas the citizens in neighborhoods that harbor rebels. Whatever the state chose to do, outside nations had no say. And of course as long as one respects national sovereignty, none of the above are crimes. Each nation determines its own laws, and therefore what is legal is whatever its rulers say is legal.
Two things have changed that. One, global media and the Internet mean that all stories are local. The deportation and killing of Jews was a distant rumor; today's attacks on citizens are rarely hidden from the world community. Second, the economy is now international. It's a global village, even if every head of house is - for now - free to beat his wife as he wants.
Globalization has given us more international laws. A country that wants to trade freely with other nations can't, for instance, simply subsidize an industry at the expense of companies in other countries. Slowly, national sovereignty has been increasingly challenged when it comes to economic policy. Some things - like trade and pollution - are obviously issues that spill across borders and can't be left to national sovereignty. The sewage that spills from San Diego drains into the ocean that breaks on the shores of Baja California.
The question is, at what point do international norms become more important than national sovereignty? At what point do you say that you don't care whether a man believes that he has the right to beat his wife or a ruler has the right to kill his people?
This is not a question of whether or not we approve of violence. The situation in Syria is already violent. The police aren't starting the violence but merely trying to end it, whether they're dragging off the husband or fighting against national forces. The question is not violence but authority.
In the last half of the 15th century, the Gutenberg Press made the Bible property of households, not just the church. At that point, the Vatican lost its monopoly as the authority in the West. In the first half of the 16th century, Protestants like Martin Luther finalized the challenge to the Vatican's authority, creating new churches. But this triggered about a century of religious wars as communities tried to work out who had the authority to enforce laws - particularly about what people could believe. It was not until the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 that communities agreed on national authority as the new norm, officially displacing the Vatican or the new Protestant churches as the authorities who could decide such issues.
We are living through a similar change today, the nation in the same place as the church was in the 16th century.
National sovereignty has been consistently eroding for at least a half century. From multi-national corporations to international trade agreements, the WTO and World Bank, the UN, and the simple fact of the international media and world opinion, national sovereignty is being challenged from every side.
Syria is just one in a series of specific questions that stem from a larger, more general question: what are the limits of national sovereignty? And that raises an even more fascinating question. When the church lost its authority, it took a century or two to define who now had that. Now, if the nation-state has lost its place as the ultimate authority, how long will it take us to re-assign that authority? And what will take its place? Because if history is any guide, that can trigger a century of turmoil.