Karen St. Peter had no cardboard sign as she fell in just after noon Saturday with the 50 or so anti-war demonstrators in Portland’s Monument Square. Just a T-shirt emblazoned with the small words “Imagine Peace.”

An ordained interfaith minister from Westbrook, St. Peter had agonized over whether to come at all. The pictures of all those dead Syrians, gassed by their own President Bashar Assad, so horrified her that she admittedly found herself “on the fence” as to whether the United States should take retaliatory action.

Yet here St. Peter stood in the middle of this noticeably subdued gathering because … why?

“Because I don’t believe in bombing,” she replied. “I’m not sure that’s the way to address the issue. And yet there is a part of me that thinks the only way to beat a bully is to beat the bully.”

Ten years ago last March, on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Monument Square seethed with anger and indignation over a war launched not on hard facts, but on ominous claims that Saddam Hussein had stockpiled “weapons of mass destruction” and was on the verge of using them. Claims that turned out to be patently false.

Scores of protesters filled the plaza that late-winter day, singing, chanting and even getting arrested when two dozen or so sat down and blocked traffic in the middle of nearby Temple Street.

Not so this time. This crowd was smaller, quieter and, in more than a few cases, caught between a desire for peace and those images of dead Syrian children that for the past 10 days have haunted TV screens the world over.

Iraq, in its early stages, was all about speculation — not just about the existence of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, but also how and when he might use them.

But there is little if any doubt about what took place on the outskirts of Damascus on Aug. 21. While the verdict from a team of United Nations inspectors who just left Syria is still a day or two away, it’s already clear that chemical weapons were deployed and that many, many innocent people died.

Still, just behind that inescapable fact, the ghosts of the Iraq debacle loomed.

Some of the Monument Square protesters still clung to the possibility, despite convincing evidence presented by Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday, that someone outside the Assad regime was behind the attack. Kerry put the death toll at 1,429 Syrians, including at least 426 children.

“Why should we believe Kerry? Kerry is totally biased. Kerry is in Israel’s back pocket!” said Bill Slavick, representing Veterans for Peace and Pax Christi.

“There are some reports out there that aren’t in the mainstream press that it was the rebels, it wasn’t Assad,” said Dixie Searway of Limerick. “And that actually it was an accident.”

“I’m dubious — only because of this country’s history of buying into one endless war after another,” said Pat Taub of Portland, a member of Code Pink. “I take (the latest intelligence reports) very much with a grain of salt.”

So much for smoking guns. A decade after the administration of President George W. Bush forfeited any and all credibility in its build-up to the Iraq war, healthy skepticism for some has given way to knee-jerk denial of anything and everything the White House calls “intelligence.”

Other protesters, like Wells Staley-Mays of Peace Action Maine, said they’ve found their way past the post-Iraq cynicism and at least accept that Assad truly is the bad guy here.

“I think Assad did it,” Staley-Mays said. “I think he’s as crazed as … I don’t know who to compare him to.”

Which brings us to the real conundrum hanging not only over Saturday’s protest, but also the hearts and minds of a war-weary nation this Labor Day weekend: If Assad is in fact murdering his own people with weapons banned by most of humanity for the past 90 years, does the United States face a moral imperative to do something about it?

Put more simply, what about all those Syrian kids still living under the threat of deadly gas? Are we not obligated — if not as Americans, then as fellow human beings — to try to protect them?

The more I asked that question at Saturday’s peace protest, the more paradoxical the whole affair seemed.

Staley-Mays, while noting “I don’t support killing under any circumstances,” said that if the chemical bombs were to keep falling, he’d opt for a more surgical strike similar to the one that took out Osama bin Laden.

“I would like (Assad) to personally die,” Staley-Mays said. “And I would like the strike to be one that just takes him out — him and not many other people.”

Seth Berner of Portland, chairman of Peace Action Maine, conceded, “You don’t ignore genocide. I would agree that at some point force does become necessary. But then the question is: By what process do you reach that point?”

President Obama announced Saturday that his process at least will include an authorization vote by Congress, meaning no military strike will occur before lawmakers return to Washington on Sept. 9.

That delay, of course, could lead to bigger and louder protests between now and when the missiles finally fly. Legitimate questions indeed remain about the long-term objectives, not to mention the unintended consequences, of what Obama promises will be a “limited, narrow” military strike.

Still, if Saturday’s gathering in downtown Portland was any indication, this will be far from 2003 revisited. Denouncing a ginned-up attack on a bogus abstraction is one thing; advocating against military action while children are being gassed to death is quite another.

That didn’t stop some at Saturday’s protest from trying to ratchet things up with a little over-the-top messaging. One sign proclaimed “Obama is a Syrial Killer,” while another declared “Silence is Violence.”

But of all the handmade placards, one stood out — both for its clarity and, however unintended, its irony.

“Save the Children,” it read.

Precisely.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@pressherald.com