‘THE Twin Towers falling.” When I asked my law students last term for their first big, bright political memory – the war of terror loomed large. It always does.

Some of my undergraduates mentioned the fire and death that engulfed lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001. Others said they saw the Iraq war of 2003 in their mind’s eye, and the military “shock and awe” which was visited on countless Iraqi families and broadcast into every British home as Baghdad was flattened in a storm of dust and artillery shells.

I was, to be honest, moderately sceptical about whether my students’ answers were honest recall, or unconscious reconstruction. The timelines are a ragged match. Like folk in earlier generations who swear blind they remember watching Kennedy shot, or seeing when man first touched down on the moon – when incidents are played and replayed to us, when they become the canonical world historical moments of your time – our memories easily play us false. We can see the disappearing Boeing 767, the black and white moonscape, and the open-topped convertible limousine minutes before Lee Harvey Oswald took his shot, because we’ve seen these images countless times before.

But for my 21-year-old students, born the year Tony Blair took the keys to Downing Street, the timings are all slightly out. I was a plooky and blazered 15 when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower in New York. On March 18, 2003, when Tony Blair forged his Commons coalition of 414 MPs to endorse military adventures in Iraq, I was 17.

Bush and Blair, war on terror, axis of evil, hawks and regime change and WMDs and “not in my name” – these were the political shibboleths of my early 20s. But for my undergraduates, mostly a decade my junior? They would have been just four years of age when Osama bin Laden activated his terror cells in the United States, and little older when the Prime Minister’s moral compass told him that helping a Republican president to decapitate Saddam Hussein was a sure-fire remedy for his country’s undoubted ills. Perhaps I’m discounting how profoundly these moments imposed themselves on the kindergarten consciousnesses of weans raised in Scotland during the early 2000s.

But on another level, it doesn’t matter whether today’s millennials are recalling or reconstructing their first geopolitical memories. Iraq – and the politics which surrounded its genesis and aftermath – constitutes a fixed point in Britain’s political timeline. When you meet anyone inclined to say “I didn’t leave the Labour Party, the Labour Party left me” – their story invariablytakes you back to the chicanery in Westminster and Whitehall in the spring of 2003. Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party emerged directly from the rubble of these wars, and all subsequent conflicts seem to fall to be triangulated against them. And so this morning, the talk is of Syria. What can be done? What should be done? But once again, the discussion feels like a flashback to my first years of political consciousness. Today’s debates aren’t principally about the suffering of the Syrian people under the yoke of President Assad – but about the whole freight of memories we bring to the assessment of what might usefully be done to mitigate their undoubted suffering.

When you’ve lived through it, every subsequent crisis can come to look like a new Suez. Another generation sees conflict as a new Vietnam. For us, the prospect of conflict in Syria automatically speaks of a new Iraq, a new Afghanistan.

Experience has rightly taught us to be sceptical about British military adventurism abroad. In the media, and across the two major parties, there remains a reflexive impulse to try to resolve intractable conflicts by crying “chocks away”

and dropping friendly bombs in the name of humanitarian intervention and fundamental rights.

A few things, at least, we know. Firstly, the notion that Donald Trump, who pledged to wage war on America’s enemies using fair measures and foul, is moved to entertain military conflict by the plight of the Syrian people merits only a bleak laugh. The US President was so moved by their suffering that he signed an executive order in January 2017 which proclaimed the “entry of nationals of Syria as refugees is detrimental to the interests of the United States”.

Secondly, the Prime Minister has no moral authority to authorise UK forces to unleash violence against Syrian targets at her own hand.

As a matter of strict law, May does not have to have resort to anyone to embroil the UK in conflict. As Prime Minister, she could exercise the royal prerogative to despatch bombing raids right away, without a breath of scrutiny from Parliament, and without a vote. But to do so, now, would be unthinkable.

Ian Blackford has the right of it: “To plough blindly ahead with military intervention, without the backing of Parliament and, crucially, with no short or long-term plan, no specified, achievable outcomes, no clear, effective strategy that benefits civilians on the ground in Syria, and no indication of an exit strategy, would be wholly unforgivable.”

There is no reasonable dissent from this position. To endorse an abstract air war against undisclosed Syrian targets in pursuit of undeclared goals, would be – to borrow a phrase – unpardonable folly. But for those of us who are not dyed-in-the-wool pacifists, who are prepared to accept that some wars are just and certain basic human rights must be fundamental – challenging questions remain.

In the wake of the Second World War, the German philosopher Karl Jaspers wrote a good deal about guilt, individual and collective. If I murder and steal, if my rockets and bombs collapse houses and hospitals over the head of civilians, if I choke the air from the lungs of children – my personal moral culpability is beyond question. But Jaspers’s point was wider and more troubling. “There exists,” he wrote, “a solidarity among men as human beings that makes each as responsible for every wrong and every injustice in the world, especially for crimes committed in his presence or with his knowledge.”

He continues: “If I fail to do whatever I can do to prevent them, I too am guilty.” It is a radical argument. The law doesn’t hold with that view. It says I’m guilty for my actions, and irresponsible for my omissions. But morally, I think, Jaspers touches our consciences in a truer spot. Just occasionally. Too occasionally.

Seeing the dead of Douma, seeing the cinders of the little skulls in the aftermath of fire raids, and the drenched children, still living, gasping for air in the bare skeleton of their town, you feel implicated. As an image of human suffering, it accuses each and every one of us. Metaphysically, as Jaspers says, it puts all of us in the dock.

The question is – wisely, carefully, thoughtfully – what we do about it. One thing is clear. Mrs May has no moral authority to answer that question alone.