Why Killing With Chemical Weapons Is Different from ‘Regular’ War

Skeptics of U.S. involvement in Syria ask a fair question: Why is the world expected to respond to the horror of 1,000 or so killed in the sarin-gas attacks, but not the horror of another 110,000 or so Syrian dead?

(First note that it’s not accurate to say Assad killed 110,000 people; that’s the overall death toll on both sides and civilians in the civil war. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights breaks up the death toll as 40,146 civilians, 21,850 rebel fighters, 27,654 regime army soldiers, 17,824 pro-regime militia, and 171 members of the Hezbollah, with another 2,726 unidentified.)

Why does the world treat those killed by chemical weapons differently? The simplest explanation is that there’s an international treaty banning the use of chemical weapons, drafted and signed in the early 1990s, but no treaty banning the use of guns and missiles to kill your own people during an uprising. Almost all of the world’s governments — all of them except for Angola, Myanmar, Egypt, Israel, North Korea, South Sudan, and Syria — thought their interests would be enhanced by a global ban on the use of those weapons.

Leaders from Moscow to Beijing to Washington to Havana concluded that chemical weapons are fundamentally different from the ‘standard’ and necessary tools of war.

Guns, artillery, bombs — they’re all capable of killing lots of people, but at least they can be aimed.

A chemical weapon, once deployed, is subject to the wind and other atmospheric conditions. A biological weapon can spread well beyond the intended target. (Think of the anthrax mailings, and how they killed Postal Service employees and some Americans whose connection to the mailings remains unclear, years later.)

Some types of biological weapons aren’t that hard to make, which is why you’ll find lunatics sending ricin in the mail. Some components of chemical weapons, like chlorine, have common industrial uses. Technically tear gas is a chemical weapon (although not the kind banned by international treaties).

These types of weapons of mass destruction present a unique danger to the world because they’re both deadly and hard to control, compared to firearms and conventional arms.

How do you prevent particularly immoral SOBs running countries from using a weapon that is relatively easy to make, extremely deadly, and often intimidating and terrorizing? The only real deterrent is to make the consequences sufficiently dire. Sure, you may kill your enemy with the poison, but the rest of the world will gang up on you.

But in order to work, the rest of the world has to gang up on the perpetrator! So far, most countries don’t seem interested. France might. Turkey might. Everyone else is a ‘no’ and the American public also isn’t interested. Even the United Nations secretary-general is arguing that U.S. bombing to enforce the treaty, without Security Council approval, would be illegal. Of course, Russia will veto any resolutions to use force.

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

Students’ Anti-Gun Views

Are children innocents or are they leaders? Are teenagers fully autonomous decision-makers, or are they lumps of mental clay, still being molded by unfolding brain development? The Left seems to have a particularly hard time deciding these days. Take, for example, the high-school students from Parkland, ... Read More
PC Culture

Kill Chic

We live in a society in which gratuitous violence is the trademark of video games, movies, and popular music. Kill this, shoot that in repugnant detail becomes a race to the visual and spoken bottom. We have gone from Sam Peckinpah’s realistic portrayal of violent death to a gory ritual of metal ripping ... Read More

Romney Is a Misfit for America

Mitt’s back. The former governor of Massachusetts and occasional native son of Michigan has a new persona: Mr. Utah. He’s going to bring Utah conservatism to the whole Republican party and to the country at large. Wholesome, efficient, industrious, faithful. “Utah has a lot to teach the politicians in ... Read More
Law & the Courts

What the Second Amendment Means Today

The horrifying school massacre in Parkland, Fla., has prompted another national debate about guns. Unfortunately, it seems that these conversations are never terribly constructive — they are too often dominated by screeching extremists on both sides of the aisle and armchair pundits who offer sweeping opinions ... Read More

Fire the FBI Chief

American government is supposed to look and sound like George Washington. What it actually looks and sounds like is Henry Hill from Goodfellas: bad suit, hand out, intoning the eternal mantra: “F*** you, pay me.” American government mostly works by interposition, standing between us, the free people at ... Read More
Film & TV

Black Panther’s Circle of Hype

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) first infantilizes its audience, then banalizes it, and, finally, controls it through marketing. This commercial strategy, geared toward adolescents of all ages, resembles the Democratic party’s political manipulation of black Americans, targeting that audience through its ... Read More