By Tom Ehrich

Unlike the 17th Century London of poet John Donne’s day, Manhattan has so many sirens and loud and sudden noises that one never knows whether the next sound signals danger.

When Donne served as Preacher to Lincoln’s Inn, his chapel bell tolled for 30 minutes at lunch hour whenever a “bencher” at the inn died. Those familiar with the custom would ask “for whom the bell tolls.”

In our much noisier world, news travels fast but imprecisely, unless live video happens to be on the scene, as happened twelve years ago today when the Twin Towers fell to terrorists.

To the best of my knowledge, no one filmed Syrian troops using chemical weapons against opponents and nearby civilians. Word just began to spread, as word does. For a time, Syria’s dictator calmly denied the attack. But little remains secret forever.

Around the world, people sensed that some fundamental line of warfare had been crossed. Some “bell” had tolled, and now we asked “for whom” and “what next.” It was like August 6, 1945, when the United States deployed atomic weapons, graphic reports of the Holocaust  emerging from defeated Germany, and terrifying reports of genocide in places like Rwanda.

Whatever we thought the world had been, now it had changed. Could our capacity to deal with change keep pace? The death of a Lincoln’s Inn bencher meant a funeral and an open seat on the select bench. Small stakes, compared with the way atomic bombs, genocide and nerve gas changed everything.

There is no fresh, clean, uncluttered decision to be made about Syria. We fouled that nest when we dealt with 9/11 by waging a yesterday war against the wrong target and did so on the basis of “cooked books.”

President Obama dithers, Republicans look for an opening to attack him, Democrats scatter, the British play it safe, Russia’s leader goes from sensible to scheming in a single news cycle.

Amid all this noise, I do hear a promising bell tolling. President Obama and his Secretary of State are remaining flexible. After too many years of rigid, ideology-driven nonsense, it is refreshing to see a presidential address get rewritten as events changed a dynamic landscape.

Whether they have found the right course, the point for me is that they entertained new information, they asked new questions, they considered new ideas. They didn’t simply blunder onward in fear of seeming weak and waffling.

I know that many crave leaders who stride like John Wayne across a hazardous landscape, determined and fearless. I’d rather have wise and sensible leaders who deal with reality even as reality swirls, changes, storms and subsides.

Better to hear the bell and to ask what it means.

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