WASHINGTON – After the guns of World War I fell silent, the world’s nations convened in Geneva to outlaw for the first time an entire class of weapons. Barely 1 percent of the war’s battlefield deaths had come from toxic chemicals, yet these had evoked greater horror than the blast wounds, shrapnel and bullets that killed millions more.
Nearly a century later, images of another chemical-weapons attack are stirring some Western capitals into action, this time over the alleged gassing of thousands of Syrian civilians by their government. Now, as then, the toll of dead and injured is relatively small, roughly equal to the average number of fatalities in an ordinary week in Syria’s civil war.
The response has prompted the same question that arose during the debates of the early 1920s: Why are chemical weapons different?
The question is central to arguments being made this week by both proponents and opponents of a military strike to punish Syria over its alleged use of nerve gas in an Aug. 21 attack on rebel strongholds near eastern Damascus.
President Barack Obama has accused Syria of crossing a moral and legal red line by using weapons that are outlawed and uniquely repugnant, and on Saturday he denounced the alleged attack as an assault on our human dignity.
But others question why the United States is compelled to respond to one type of killing when it took no military action to prevent the deaths of an estimated 100,000 Syrians by more conventional but often brutal methods.
Even some who were convinced by the administration’s intelligence case say they question why a single atrocity ranks higher than so many others. The White House released an intelligence assessment and map Friday detailing why it holds Syrian officials responsible for the deaths of nearly 1,500 people, including more than 400 children.
Even if the map is only half accurate, this was truly a heinous use of chemical weapons, said Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired army colonel and former adviser to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell during the months before the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
That said, (North Korean leaders) Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il killed thousands if not millions more with starvation, yet we did nothing substantive. Is it worse to die of gas or hunger?
Others argue that chemical weapons are indeed unique, and any use demands a firm response from civilized nations to deter future attacks.
Chemical weapons are genuinely horrible, and they are indiscriminate, said Jeffrey Lewis, an arms-control expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. They are a particularly cruel way to kill someone.
It is true, Lewis said, that civilians will die in any conflict – often in excruciating ways.
But I’m on board with any effort to try to ban the most inhumane weapons, the things that kill on a mass scale, he said.
Chemical toxins only became a true weapon of mass destruction during World War I, when European chemists were enlisted on both sides to help end the stalemate in the trenches.
Chlorine, phosgene and mustard gas would eventually kill more than 90,000 soldiers and wound nearly a million others.
While the death toll was relatively small – three times as many were killed in the Battle of the Somme in 1916 – gas attacks were feared because they frequently left victims in agony for days.
Since the 1925 treaty signing, only a handful of chemical attacks have been documented. Among the worst was a 1988 attack by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein against the Kurdish town of Halabja, in which sarin and other deadly gases killed between 3,000 and 5,000 civilians.