How Big a Deal Are Chemical Weapons?

What do Saddam Hussein, Bill Clinton, and Vladimir Putin have in common? They’ve all been reported to have used nerve gas on their own people.

In 1988, Saddam Hussein ordered a poison gas attack on the Kurdish city of Halabja in northern Iraq. Thousands of people are reported to have been killed and many others injured. Chemicals used in the attack are said to have included the nerve agents sarin, tabun, and VX.1

During the protests at the 1999 World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference in Seattle, US police mostly used chemical agents known as irritants (e.g., pepper spray) for crowd control. However, on the day that President Bill Clinton visited the conference, the police (and I use that term loosely) used a type of nerve agent known as CNX on the crowd. This was discovered by doctors at free clinics treating the protesters, who reported undeniable symptoms of nerve agent poisoning in their patients. Some have chosen to call this substance an “incapacitating agent”, but in its action it is clearly neurotoxic.2

In 2002 Chechen militants invaded the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow and held hundreds of people hostage. Russian Alfa special forces ended the two-and-a-half day crisis by shooting or fatally gassing everyone left in the theater, including 130 hostages, using a previously unknown nerve agent said to have been an opiate gas. Russian officials have never accepted responsibility for the deaths, which occurred during the presidency of Vladimir Putin. This substance also could be called an “incapacitating agent”, but it also is neurotoxic.3

Now we’re being told that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons (a nerve agent) on his own people, which if true would surely be a heinous crime.4 But before we go off the deep end, perhaps we should ask ourselves whether he’s just following the lead of fellow presidents Vlad and Bill. Why should there be a “red line” crossed when Ba’athists use nerve gas, but none when Russians and Americans do?

  1. Thousands die in Halabja gas attack,” BBC News. []
  2. Nerve Agents Used in Seattle It Appears.” []
  3. Moscow Theater Siege 2002: Russians Mark Chechen Hostage Taking.” []
  4. Were Chemical Weapons Used in Syria?New York Times. []

Howard Uhal is a Vietnam era veteran of the US Army and a former nuclear submarine officer. He has held various positions in the nuclear and environmental industries and has degrees in Geology and Environmental Systems Engineering. He can be reached at: htuhal@gmail.com. Read other articles by Howard, or visit Howard's website.