Chemical weapons: holding the line

Alleged chemical weapons attacks in SyriaIn all the debate over the past week about Syria, and the UK decision not to participate in any military intervention, one point made by some of those who oppose intervention has troubled me. To summarise it (I hope without caricature): “Why should Assad’s use of chemical weapons make such a difference? He’s been killing his people with conventional weapons for months or years – is it really any worse to die from the use of chemical weapons than from conventional guns or explosives? All death in war is horrible.”

Now, whether or not President Obama was wise to make the use of chemical weapons a “red line”, the crossing of which would make intervention necessary or inevitable, it seems to me necessary to maintain a moral “red line” in which the taboo against chemical weapons is maintained. While I am neither a moral philosopher nor a specialist in the “Just War” doctrine, in this post I’m going to attempt a brief defence of that position.

As a start point, it’s worth seeing what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say on the subject of “weapons of mass destruction”:

“Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.” A danger of modern warfare is that it provides the opportunity to those who possess modern scientific weapons — especially atomic, biological, or chemical weapons — to commit such crimes. (CCC, 2314)

There are two main points to note here. One is that the Catechism is not saying that “conventional” weapons are fine, while chemical (or nuclear, or biological) weapons are alone “beyond the pale”. What is under condemnation is indiscriminate destruction regardless of the means: Dresden, as well as Hiroshima. The second point, though, is that chemical, nuclear and biological weapons are “especially” dangerous in this respect.

So, does that leave the way open for us to tolerate a “moderate” use of chemical weapons – at least in the sense of asking whether it is really “any worse” than the use of conventional weapons on the same scale? I think that for us to do so would open us to grave danger. One reason is that human beings seem to be hardwired to find abstinence easier to maintain than moderation, as argued by Oliver Burkeman in his Guardian column last year.

[F]or many people, it’s just easier to do things 100% than 98%. That’s the approach of Alcoholics Anonymous: once you’ve decided to stop drinking completely – or never bring work home, or go for a daily run, or keep Sundays basketball-free – you needn’t waste time or energy weighing the merits of each potential exception, because there aren’t any. “Abstinence is as easy to me as temperance would be difficult,” Samuel Johnson said. Hard-and-fast rules can be strangely freeing.

The problem with “temperance” is that every visit to the boundaries of “moderation” pushes them back a little. Quoting Clayton Christensen (who lost his opportunity to play in national basketball finals by refusing to play on a Sunday):

There’s always an extenuating circumstance; the cost of “just this once” is always enticingly low. But “life is just one unending stream of extenuating circumstances”. Every next step that, say, Nick Leeson or Enron’s Jeffrey Skilling took, Christensen points out, was no big deal from a marginal perspective. “The next step,” he writes, “is always a small one, and given what you’ve already done, why stop now?”

Once we decide we can regard a “moderate” use of chemical weapons – if 1,429 dead can be regarded as “moderate” – as tolerable, then what about 2,000 dead? 5,000? 10,000? Before long, the use of chemical weapons could become routine – and the risk of “indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants”, of a “crime against God and man” running into hundreds of thousands or even millions of casualties, would increase greatly.

The case of conventional weapons only confirms this. An outright ban on the use of conventional weapons would be a ban on war itself – something that is never going to happen in this world, alas. So we’re left with a sliding scale in which it is very hard for us to draw clear lines as to what is ethically acceptable. It is hard to imagine any democracy ever being able to engage again in WW2- (or Vietnam/Cambodia-)style “area bombing” of cities, but we have seemed happy enough in recent decades to engage in what are called “surgical strikes”, even with their inevitable “collateral damage”. As many have pointed out, the Syrian civil war has seen at least 100,000 civilian deaths by “conventional” means, while, elsewhere, even worse death tolls go almost unnoticed in the west. The sliding scale for conventional weapons is an argument against following the same approach with “unconventional” weapons.

The outright prohibitions on chemical, nuclear and biological weapons represent a situation where, having a rare opportunity to draw clear ethical lines in relation to war, we have (with relative success – “chemical exfoliants” and the like notwithstanding) been able to take that opportunity and to maintain those clear lines for several decades. We shouldn’t relinquish this lightly.

That doesn’t mean that military intervention is the right, or only, response when someone does “cross the line”. For the record, on the question of Syria I am inclined to defer to Field Marshal Lord Guthrie, who has been quoted as saying that a UK intervention would not have been a “Just War”. But we shouldn’t confuse the question of what is the appropriate response to a crime with the question of whether it should still be regarded as a crime in the first place.


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