Responding to the Use of Chemical Weapons (3rd Edition)

Getting killed or maimed by a chemical weapon isn’t necessarily worse than being killed or maimed by a bullet or high explosive. Being aware of their terrible effects, however, almost all countries have agreed not to use chemical weapons. And despite the fact that we’ve been lied to before by our political leaders (for example, regarding the Gulf of Tonkin incident and Iraq’s weapons program), it seems likely that President Obama is telling the truth and correctly interpreting the evidence that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons — to devastating effect.

Before the President spoke yesterday, I would have bet that he was going to tell the Navy to launch cruise missiles against targets in Syria. Other presidents have made similar decisions, without Congressional approval and certainly without a declaration of war. That can be the right thing for a President to do in extraordinary circumstances. Yet I was hoping that Obama would wait for the report of the U.N. inspectors and also seek approval from Congress. If it’s clear that the Syrian government launched this attack, there should be a response, but that response doesn’t need to be immediate. It should also be a response supported by Congress, since we’re supposed to be a democracy.

Now there will be a debate in Congress. as well as a continuing debate in the media.Β We’ll hear many good reasons why the United States shouldn’t do anything, and some very good reasons for doing something.Β Maybe this will be one of those cases in which the “wisdom of crowds” will result in a good decision, even an improvement on what the President wants to do. Unfortunately, Congress, especially this Congress, rarely does anything wise.

This is the third time I’ve written this post, after deleting it twice.Β There is a strong moral case for doing something to stop the Syrian government and other governments from using chemical weapons, even though that may be a difficult thing to do and there will be unforeseeable consequences. We can’t know yet whether those possible consequences tip the scale toward doing nothing.Β 

The truth is that I don’t know what I’d do if I were Obama or a member of Congress. What’s happening in Syria (and Egypt, Iraq, etc.) may be so sick and so irrational that there is nothing for the rest of us to do but watch, hoping that these people will get tired of hating and killing each other or that someone will eventually exert control over the situation. One of those things might happen, probably after we’re dead and gone.

2 thoughts on “Responding to the Use of Chemical Weapons (3rd Edition)

  1. How much difference is there between an atrocious regime using a chemical form of murder to a group of 19-25 year old yahoos sitting at computer stations where they enter geographical coordinates and push buttons and let fly, whatever.


    Have we, the US decided (along with the rest of the world) to have humane wars? Are our atomic bombs merely a last resort? Would war be banished if you could only kill slowly and painfully? (See American Indian attitude to dying well.)


    Do we believe in hell? If not then war is no different than the common cold. Two to three hundred thousand casualties, whether civilian or military, is still a statistical anomaly. Now, if we can kill a billion or more we’re talking business. But, you know, all this talk about war and killing is not good for the arms industry and we must support one of our biggest industries (worldwide, no less.)

    In conclusion, I see no real difference between chemical and push-button killing. And, civilians always get in the way; that’s their problem. Kill ’em all.


    or, not.

    • One difference is that chemical weapons tend to work slowly, causing a lingering, painful death for everyone affected, as opposed to a relatively quick death for people who get blown to bits by drones (and not just horribly maimed).

      Another difference between chemical weapons and drones is that chemical weapons have been outlawed. They are one less weapon in the arsenal. It seems to me that having particular kinds of weapons (such as nuclear weapons and biological weapons) outlawed is a good thing.

      But if it’s a good thing, the ban should be enforced somehow. It would be much better to enforce the ban through non-violent means, but there may be cases where non-violent sanctions wouldn’t have an effect or would have worse effects than a limited but violent response. Launching cruise missiles against certain military or government targets might be the best option in Syria if we want to enforce the ban on chemical weapons. But as I said, I’m glad I don’t have to vote on this.

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