Military people, militants and terrorists kill people by a variety of techniques: hand-held weapons (knives, guns, grenades, rocket launchers…); high-explosive devices buried in the ground (IEDs, landmines); missiles launched from ground-based launch sites, drones, manned aircraft or ships; nuclear weapons delivered by inter-continental ballistic missiles; biological techniques such as toxins or infectious nerve agents; and, since WW1, chemical weapons.
Of all these techniques for mass murder, why are chemical weapons considered worse than other weapons? Why does their use represent a crossing of a red line? Here are some of the arguments put forth to condemn the use of chemical weapons.
“Poisonous gases act indiscriminately, killing combatants and non-combatants alike within a certain range.”
So do cluster bombs, or bombs that topple a large building that crashes down onto people below, or punctures a dam that drowns all those downstream, or causes a crowded train or aircraft to crash, or….
“Since WW1’s use of phosgene, mustard gas and chlorine, the use of any form of chemical weapon has been considered barbaric and should be outlawed.”
Barbaric: savagely cruel, primitive, unsophisticated (COED). You could say the same about a nuclear bomb and yet several countries either have a stockpile (USA, Russia, UK, France, China, North Korea, and possibly, Israel) or, in one case, are known to be working towards creating a stockpile (Iran).
“Using chemicals to wage warfare pushes the boundaries of modern warfare and thus should be prohibited.”
I don’t understand this argument. Chemical weapons pushed the boundary in WW1. Nuclear weapons pushed the boundary in WW2. Cyber attacks are pushing the boundaries as I write. Who’s to say where the boundaries of war exist, and with what authority? Terrorists hell-bent on mass destruction via so-called dirty bombs have never signed up to some boundary-of-warfare charter, nor have rogue dictators such as we see in the Middle East, Africa and Far East Asia. It is countries that sign protocols limiting the use of certain weapons, not individuals.
“Death by chemical weapons, such as sarin gas, is slow and painful compared with death by, say, a sniper’s bullet or a high explosive delivered by a drone.”
In the end, a weapon-induced death is death, however horrible, and we cannot use an argument based on the nature and speed-of-death properties of the killing agent to condemn or condone a particular technique. Death by torture, death by drowning, death by landmine, death by beheading: they are all equally as horrible.
Some opinion writers postulate that opposition to chemical weapons is more a political positioning than humanitarian. The United States, for example, is well equipped to repel an invader who uses what we might call “conventional” weapons of attack: bullets and bombs, however launched. But, if there was a massive chemical attack on the United States, bullets and bombs are of little defensive use. Hence, it is in the interest of the United States to create a stigma, a red line, around chemical weapons and to convene a world-wide arms-control treaty banning the use of such weapons – the Chemical Weapons Convention, 1992.
I have some sympathy with this view but, in the end, I can see no significant difference in any form of weapon that is designed to destroy property and take life. Over the last few days, Donald Trump, Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron have heightened the tension between East and West by their interference in a civil war that, currently, poses no threat to the USA, UK or France, and their response appears to be based more on an irrational reaction to al-Assad’s alleged use of a chemical weapon. The situation brings to mind the manipulative and misleading process by which Tony Blair committed the UK to the USA-led 2003 invasion of Iraq. My thoughts at the time were, “By joining this coalition, what problem are we solving, and why are we solving it?”
I have the same questions about Theresa May’s support for the recent air strikes on Syria.