The images emerging from Syria -- from this hysterical young girl to these rows of corpses -- should be a turning point in a conflict that has killed 100,000 people. The deaths, if proven, demonstrate either the depravity of Bashar al-Assad -- or the rebels fighting him.
But the Obama administration has spent so much time distancing itself and Americans from acting in Syria that a serious U.S. reaction is politically impossible in Washington. And instead of learning its lesson -- and respecting Syria's dead -- the White House is repeating its destructive pattern of issuing empty threats.
Hours after the images appeared, National Security Adviser Susan Rice demanded on Twitter that the Syrian government "allow the UN access to the attack site to investigate" and vowed that "those responsible will be held accountable."
Deputy White House Spokesman Josh Earnest called the use of chemical weapons, if proven, "completely unacceptable" and also said those responsible "will be held accountable."
Yet it was unclear how, exactly, the administration will hold anyone accountable in Syria. For the last two years, American military action has been off the table. And the White House's decision in June to give light weapons to the Syrian rebels is likely to have little immediate impact.
In a previously planned letter to Congress, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, argued on Wednesday that Syria's opposition remains too divided to run the country.
"Syria today is not about choosing between two sides," Dempsey wrote, "but rather about choosing one among many sides. It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not."
Dempsey said American air strikes could destroy the Syrian air force and shift the balance of power in the country but it "cannot resolve the underlying and historic ethnic, religious and tribal issues that are fueling this conflict." The chairman, in essence, was repeating the argument the White House has made for inaction over the last two years.
If a massive chemical attack is proven, however, this should be a watershed moment. Clearly, there are no easy solutions to ending the conflict in Syria and American ground troops should not be deployed. But if the Syrian government is found to be responsible, the administration and its European allies should consider carrying out air strikes that would punish Assad's military. And if the Syrian opposition carried out an attack on its own people, all Western support to the rebels should end.
The conflict is growing worse, not better. It is inflaming sectarian tensions across the region and destabilizing Lebanon and Iraq. Earlier this month, CIA officials said that Syria's mix of al Qaeda-aligned militants and chemical weapons is the single largest security threat the United States faces.
Americans understandably want to avert their eyes from Syria and the Middle East, with 1,000 dead in Egypt and car bombs routinely killing dozens in Iraq. But a mass chemical attack is chillingly different.