On August 21st, thousands of Syrians suffered the effects of an alleged chemical attack by contested Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad and his regime. According to U.S. reports, 1,400 people died, and many more were injured. Many of those killed and injured were not part of the Free Syrian Army, but innocent citizens, including children. Investigations indicate that the weapon of choice was Sarin, a liquid-to-vapor nerve agent that can cause an array of symptoms, up to and including death. The Obama administration is now pushing for a U.S. military response. The president will hold a vote today (Tuesday) in an attempt to get congressional backing for targeted missile strikes against the Assad regime.
Importantly, this is an openly symbolic act. Obama and his supporters—along with British PM David Cameron , whose Syria plan was recently voted down—explicitly state that they do not intend to change the tide of the ongoing civil war. Rather, military action against the Assad regime acts as a public punishment for the use of chemical weapons, a violation of the Geneva Protocols of 1925 and the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993. Below are some excerpts from Obama’s remarks a few days ago (here is the full transcript):
This kind of attack is a challenge to the world. We cannot accept a world where women and children and innocent civilians are gassed on a terrible scale. This kind of attack threatens our national security interests by violating well established international norms against the use of chemical weapons… So, I have said before, and I meant what I said that, the world has an obligation to make sure that we maintain the norm against the use of chemical weapons.
In no event are we considering any kind of military action that would involve boots on the ground, that would involve a long-term campaign. But we are looking at the possibility of a limited, narrow act that would help make sure that not only Syria, but others around the world, understand that the international community cares about maintaining this chemical weapons ban and norm.
Kai T. Erikson famously argues that moral lines are drawn at the “public scaffold.” And indeed, Western military action here is intended not to change the course of this specific war, but to maintain a particular definition of war, one that separates “war” from other acts of violence with names like “genocide,” “terrorism,” and “murder.”
So why are chemical weapons the uncrossable “red line?” Why does *this*necessitate military action, while all of the other mass killings in Syria have not? To put this in perspective, the chemical attacks killed an estimated 1,400 people. Since 2011, the Assad regime has used guns and bombs to kill over 100,000 people, including many by-standing citizens.
The key issue with chemical weapons is that, as a technology of violence, they are wildly effective but highly imprecise. That is, they can kill and hurt a lot of people very quickly with little danger to the attacking force. Many of the people hurt and killed, however, will not be the intended targets. A chemical weapon spreads, with little notice for the plans of s/he who releases it. Because of this, innocent people die. People who lived as citizens—not active war participants—become collateral in a war they did not sign up for.
If at this point, you’re thinking that this problem seems quite familiar, then we are on the same page. Right. Drones.
Although the numbers are disputed, some estimate that U.S. drone attacks have killed well over a thousand non-militants in Pakistan, including children, and Daniel Byman of the Brookings Institute believes drone strikes have killed 10 civilians for every one military target.
The question then becomes, who gets to draw red lines? Who has the power in games of war and language to set and break standards of morality? Who, through treacherous acts of inhumanity and violence against innocents, shifts from being a leader to being a terrorist, despot, or murderer, and who in contrast, sits in relative comfort, giving stern looks and commanding the release of bombs?
Pic via: http://www.thesweetestoccasion.com
Jenny Davis is a weekly contributor for Cyborgology. Follower Jenny on Twitter @Jenny_L_Davis