WASHINGTON - Washington was under siege on Monday, with SWAT teams racing through the streets and military helicopters circling overhead. Not immediately threatened, however, was the complacency that allows our elected officials to argue endlessly about the threats we face rather than work together to lessen them.
"We are confronting yet another mass shooting," President Obama said at midday, "and today it happened on a military installation in our nation's capital."
A few miles away at the historic Washington Navy Yard, authorities were just beginning to assess the carnage left by a gunman -- or perhaps gunmen -- who sprayed the halls of the Naval Sea Systems Command with semi-automatic weapons fire. Police at one point put the number of fatalities at 13, but the tally of dead and wounded kept changing throughout the afternoon.
Was this an act of terrorism, similar to the Fort Hood shootings or the Boston bombings? That theory advanced and receded during the day, amid conflicting reports of multiple assailants and speculation about possible motives.
Since no possibility could be quickly ruled out, all the old arguments about the nature of the "war on terror" were deemed in order. Obama's supporters praise him for killing Osama bin Laden and smashing al-Qaeda to bits. Critics say that decentralized terrorism and "self-radicalized" individuals constitute an increasing menace. Both positions are more often used to score political points than to seek solutions.
Or was the Navy Yard rampage "just" another senseless multiple shooting, like so many others? During his presidency, Obama has mourned the victims and consoled the survivors of Fort Hood, Tucson, Aurora and Newtown. There was a weariness in his voice as he spoke of Navy personnel who had served bravely overseas yet "today ... faced the unimaginable violence that they wouldn't have expected here at home."
The one confirmed shooter -- who died on the scene -- was reportedly carrying at least three firearms. Following the unimaginable horror of Newtown, in which 20 children were slaughtered, Obama could not even convince Congress to mandate universal background checks for gun purchases, let alone take stronger measures to keep powerful weapons out of unstable hands.
Opponents of gun control argue that instead of infringing Second Amendment rights, we should focus on the fact that most, if not all, of these mass shooters are psychologically disturbed. But many of the officials who take this view are simultaneously trying their best to repeal Obamacare, which will provide access to mental health services to millions of Americans who are now uninsured.
So what difference did it really make what motivated Monday's shooting? Beyond tightening security at military bases, what is our sclerotic political system capable of doing to prevent the next slaughter of innocents?
The shocking events in Washington eclipsed what otherwise would have been headline news from New York: U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon released a report providing "clear and convincing" evidence that chemical weapons were indeed used in Syria.
The report did not seek to ascribe blame. But it described the trajectory of rockets carrying nerve gas that were fired into a Damascus suburb on Aug. 21, and this data strongly indicates the projectiles were fired by forces loyal to dictator Bashar al-Assad. If ever there was doubt, none remains: Assad used poison gas to kill more than 1,400 civilians.
In a rare display of consensus, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., both favor passage of a resolution giving Obama the authority to launch a punitive strike against Assad. But neither congressional leader is able to convince his rank-and-file members to back military action.
Failing to decide, however, is a decision. The multiple conflicts that intersect in Syria -- Assad versus rebels, Shiites versus Sunnis, Iran versus Saudi Arabia -- have the potential to reshape the Middle East in ways that clearly will have an impact on U.S. national security. Whatever we do or decline to do, we will live with the consequences.
We don't want to get involved in Syria. We don't want to honestly assess where we are in the "war on terror." We don't want to deal with gun control. All these issues are fraught with political danger. Much safer for our intrepid elected officials to stake out their positions and yell at the other side, knowing the words will bounce off harmlessly. No progress made, no political damage done.
But the world doesn't stop just because Washington does. Sometimes the issues our officials want to ignore hit tragically close to home.
Eugene Robinson is a nationally syndicated columnist.