My first blog post is about Syria, and concerns a question relating to the use of chemical weapons which has not yet (to my knowledge) been covered. Whilst most debate around Syria concerns why or why not an attack is 1) ethical, and/or 2) in America’s interests, this article will address whether Assad’s attack (it shall be assumed it was Assad) itself was ethical or unethical. Most assume it was unethical, certainly no one I know is defending its use. And so why not, for the first blog post, rock the boat, exactly when nobody is likely reading?
High estimates put those killed in the attack at 1,500. This in a civil war where a hundred times that number have lost their lives. Why all the fuss now? Why all this focus on this particular attack, which represents a small fraction of the overall deaths caused in Syria, which itself represents a small fraction from all those deaths caused from famine and disease? Is death by chemical agent any worse than the long-drawn out suffering of a child starving to death? I assume one is not much worse than the other. But starvation is certainly much more common than death by chemical weapons. I cannot answer which is worse with any certainty, however, being fortunate enough never to have had experience of either.
And nor do I have any prospect of ever experiencing starvation. I, a citizen of the United kingdom, have more risk of death by over-consumption than under-consumption. Not so with chemical weapons. I and my society generally could not care less of Rwandan genocide when hundreds of thousands died at the hands of a technology we mastered and surpassed centuries ago. Machete wielding fanatics pose no threat to us (at least we in London thought as much until this year…). And back to Syria; there is no threat to us, or our way of life, from the conventional weapons that have been doing all the killing up until now. The Syrian army causes neither me nor those in the know any sleepless nights. Not so with chemical weapons.
It is the threat they pose to us that ensure their usage is accompanied by outrage and threats of reprisal. It is the same with any modern day Weapons of Mass Destruction. Just look at North Korea and Iran. It has been true throughout the ages. Chemical weapons, it is commonly stated, were banned shortly after World War I. A weapon which also made its début in World War I, but which subsequently was not banned, despite the attempts of some, was the submarine (Civil War enthusiasts may slap me down on this one). Britain decried the immorality of such a weapon.
For Britain was nearly defeated, it’s populace starved, from the U-boat and not the surface vessels which Britain employed to similarly defeat Germany, and starve more than a million Germans to death in the process (even after the war had ended). For the British these were highly honourable forms of fighting. And perhaps there is some truth in it. After all, a cruiser can stop, board, and confiscate a ship, whilst a U-boat is left with no alternative but to sink its target. And indeed, cruise missiles and air power, it is true, are more discerning than chemical weapons. But are chemical weapons any less discerning than the indiscriminate artillery fire being reigned down upon Syrian civilians? Or starvation resulting from rebel strongholds cut-off and surrounded by besieging forces? That is doubtful. It is not their indiscriminate nature which repulses us against chemical weapons.
The fact that a ban on U-boats was both the right thing morally to do and coincided with Britain’s interests, which had a great surface fleet unlike Germany which had not, merely served to show how righteous Britain was. It should have set alarm bells ringing that perhaps, just maybe, Britain’s position was slightly hypocritical. Just as our protestations today over Syria’s use of chemical weapons should do for us but, alas, are not.
And so today The West prohibits the use of weapons only the weak choose to employ, such as chemical weapons. In our enlightened state we can pursue our interests with drones, cruise missiles, and an air force the enemy can’t see let alone shoot down. This makes us civilized, and the civilians killed from our wars collateral damage. It is with such weapons we now propose to punish Assad with; by killing innocent Syrian civilians to show Assad the immorality of killing innocent Syrian civilians (at least if the properly proscribed methods are not observed). It is exactly such weapons that faced moral outrage from The West not so long ago; in World War I, Guernica, and The Blitz, back when we The West were threatened by them. But unlike chemical weapons, which continue to haunt us, air power is now our friend; a tamed beast. No moral opprobrium attaches itself to their use now.
The outrage over this atrocity represents the subconscious cloaking of our interests in the morality of fighting against the evil of terrible weapons. And it will last for as long as we are its potential victims.