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 Obama has accused Syria of crossing a moral and legal red lineby 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.
Even before the first clouds of deadly chlorine gas swept over French lines in 1915, the use of poisons in warfare was widely seen as taboo. In 1863, in the middle of America’s bloodiest war, the U.S. War Department issued a decree banning poisoning in any form, including the use of poison-tipped bullets or the poisoning of food supplies. Eleven years later, a similar ban was approved, but never ratified, by 14 European countries.