By Jane M. Orient, M.D.
Syrian President Bashar al Assad is being read out of the human race, and the Trump Administration seems to have done a 180-degree turn on the necessity for “regime change” in Syria because Assad used horrible, horrible! weapons against civilians, including helpless little babies.
A journalist might ordinarily assert the word “allegedly” before the charges—if for no other reason that while no one thinks Assad is good, some might think he is not that stupid. But he has already been tried and convicted, by the media and the government. That’s the infallible tribunal that sequentially declared that Iraq had chemical weapons, then didn’t (might they have shipped them to Syria?), and that the Syrian regime had disposed of theirs, but now had used them to kill their own babies.
Chemical weapons seem to be in a class by themselves: the ultimately gruesome way to die. Their use crosses the final Red Line to a heinous crime against humanity, and is a violation of international law. Of course, we don’t always do much about it.
Chemical warfare (CW) was used in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). In the mobile nuclear-chemical-biological (NBC) shelter displayed by Physicians for Civil Defense in the 1990s, there are some graphic photographs of the horrendous injuries inflicted on Iranian soldiers with mustard gas. We kept them covered up when children were touring the display. Mustard burns any body tissue, causing blindness, blistering, and lung damage. We heard that steel shelters like the one we were displaying were being buried in the desert during the Gulf War (1990-1991)—and that the Swiss sir-filtration systems like the one in the display were being sold out. (All Swiss homes are supposed to have such a system in their required shelters.)
While called a weapon of mass destruction, CW is not very good for inflicting widespread mass casualties. It is dispersed by the wind, broken down by sunlight, and deteriorates with time. But is unquestionably very deadly and could be deployed through the ventilation systems of buildings or subway systems. Twenty years ago, members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult poisoned the Tokyo subway with the nerve gas sarin, injuring thousands and killing a dozen.
Nerve agents poison the body’s system for transmitting neural impulses. They cause uncontrollable nerve discharges that lead to drooling, vomiting, and diarrhea. Paralysis of respiratory muscles can cause death by asphyxiation. Survivors may have long-term neurological damage.
Hundreds of tons of CW agents have been stockpiled. The U.S. agreed to destroy its CW agents—a difficult, costly, and dangerous undertaking—by international treaty.
Press secretary Sean Spicer committed the probably unforgiveable blunder of suggesting that Assad was worse than Hitler because even Hitler refrained from using poison gas in World War II—forgetting the matter of the Holocaust. What probably deterred Hitler from using CW on the battlefield was not some vestige of humanity but the threat of retaliation in kind. Himself the survivor of a gas attack by the Allies (the Good Guys) in World War I, he knew very well that Britain had CW capability.
Are CW agents more of an affront to humanity than other weapons of war? In a way, they are like the neutron bomb, widely condemned for killing people while leaving the infrastructure relatively intact. Sam Cohen, inventor of the neutron bomb, conceived of it, however, as a relatively humane weapon, because of his experience in Korea, where he saw starving, homeless orphans digging through rubble in search of something to eat.
One may ask how to draw a red line between chemical agents that poison and burn and chemical agents that explode? The latter, called “conventional” weapons, kill by tearing people apart or setting fires. Is this a more humane death?
Then there are the methods used by Assad’s enemies: burning children alive, running over them with a truck, crucifying them, or beheading them. And there are the true weapons of mass destruction: biological agents (which have a doubling time instead of a half life) and nuclear weapons.
CW is not the Demon that must be slain at any cost. It is one of a legion of horrors called War. Symptoms of war include dehumanizing the enemy, and mobilizing troops. Sean Hannity is asking for contributions to buy helmets for our under-equipped soldiers.
Some babies have died horribly. How many will die, ostensibly to avenge them?
Jane M. Orient, M.D. obtained her undergraduate degrees in chemistry and mathematics from the University of Arizona in Tucson, and her M.D. from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1974. She completed an internal medicine residency at Parkland Memorial Hospital and University of Arizona Affiliated Hospitals and then became an Instructor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine and a staff physician at the Tucson Veterans Administration Hospital. She has been in solo private practice since 1981 and has served as Executive Director of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS) since 1989. Dr. Orient is the 2017 recipient of The Edward Annis award for medical leadership.