Why Do We Single Out Chemical Weapons?

President Obama took to the airwaves last night to make his case for military action against Syria, and it pretty much boiled down to “chemical weapons.” I’m not oversimplifying – he used the phrase 15 times. And while I grant that chemical weapons and their effects are self-evidently awful, it’s not quite clear to me why they should function as our litmus test for when we spring into “global enforcer” mode. I think the default thinking is that – intentionally or unintentionally – chemical weapons have become synonymous with genocide, which is not close to correct.

There’s been a lot of callbacks to World War II as options around Syria are discussed, from comparing the Assad regime to the Third Reich to comparing a failure to act to the Munich Agreement. I suppose the comparison is an easy one (even though the tactics employed by the Nazis were less “chemical weapons” and more accurately “weaponized chemicals”). But it reinforces the false notion many have that, but for chemical assistance, there would have been no Holocaust.

Babi Yar, September 1941

Seventy-two years ago this month, in a ravine outside of Kiev called Babi Yar, Nazis herded the entire Jewish population out of the city, ordered them to strip naked, made them kneel on the edge of a ditch in groups of ten, and shot them. This went on for two days until over 33,700 men, women and children were dead or dying in a mass grave. A month later, Romanians in and around Odessa began a series of systematic murders that resulted in the deaths of 34,000 Jews in two days and 100,000 Jews over a period of just a few months. Similar acts were carried out all over occupied Poland, Belorussia, Ukraine and the Soviet Union. The systematized extermination that many think of when they hear the term “Holocaust” did not begin in earnest until well into 1942. By that point an estimated 1.5 million civilians had already been wiped out by bullets or by fire in various actions like what occurred at Babi Yar.

Over a span of about 100 days in 1994, Hutus in Rwanda massacred anywhere between 500,000 and 1 million Tutsis. Most victims were hacked to death by machete.

Joseph Stalin proved that genocide is possible without any weapons at all, as he utilized a terror famine campaign to starve an estimated 3.9 million Ukrainians and Cossacks to death in 1932 and 1933. Families kept children locked away out of fear that they would be eaten by neighbors.

The list could go on. The point is, chemical weapons are not an essential ingredient to crimes against humanity. In fact, their use since the end of World War I has been exceedingly rare – partly because human beings have no shortage of other means to achieve malevolent ends. In Obama’s remarks, he noted that over 100,000 people have been killed in Syria, and untold numbers more displaced. Why are the 1% of those deaths allegedly caused by sarin the sole impetus for action, especially if said action is not conducted with the aim of removing those responsible? Why such an arbitrary line, and why such a half measure (seriously – what does “degrade a regime” even mean?)? As discussed in a previous post on Syria, his vague allusions at deterrence of future villains ring pretty hollow, certainly in terms of national security and of international justice.

If he feels there’s a humanitarian case to be made to ramp up assistance to Syrian civilians and refugees, he should make it. If he feels there’s a case to be made to take active military steps to topple the Assad government, he should make that, as well. While I’m certain I would disagree with him on the latter point, it would at least make logical sense within the framework he used last night – that of a “crime against humanity.” I would be as steadfastly opposed as anyone to “boots on the ground,” but if this truly is as beyond the pale as the President claims, isn’t that exactly when we need to commit to stopping the crime, even if it means a more than a “targeted, narrow” action? It’s hard to see how one can have it both ways.

The one thing that seems absurd is to try to fit the square peg of “history and morality compel us to do what’s right” into the round hole of “what I think Americans will sign off on + what allows me to save face and do the bare minimum to act on the half-assurances I already made,” yet that’s where the President left us last night.

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