Is the term “chemical weapons” a distinction without a difference? As the United States weighs its options in Syria, which it says has crossed the red line after having used chemical weapons, I too have been debating in my mind what the difference is.
All modern weapons are chemical weapons unless there are armies that continue to fight with spears and arrows, swords and axes and rocks hurled by giant catapults. Bullets, bombs, missiles and all other manners of ammunitions are essentially combustible and incendiary explosives that kill and maim because they have chemicals in them. In so much as they use chemicals, all weapons are chemical weapons. So why the distinction about what the world calls “chemical weapons”?
The Organization of Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is the global body that implements the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) signed by 189 countries covering 98 percent of the global population, defines them as the following:
1. "Chemical Weapons" means the following, together or separately:
(a) Toxic chemicals and their precursors, except where intended for purposes not prohibited under this Convention, as long as the types and quantities are consistent with such purposes;
(b) Munitions and devices, specifically designed to cause death or other harm through the toxic properties of those toxic chemicals specified in subparagraph (a), which would be released as a result of the employment of such munitions and devices;
(c) Any equipment specifically designed for use directly in connection with the employment of munitions and devices specified in subparagraph (b).
2. "Toxic Chemical" means:
Any chemical which through its chemical action on life processes can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm to humans or animals. This includes all such chemicals, regardless of their origin or of their method of production, and regardless of whether they are produced in facilities, in munitions or elsewhere.
I am none the wiser about chemical weapons after reading their definition as given by the OPCW, but let’s just say that the world thinks chemical weapons are different from traditional ones which are explosives encased in metal devices such as bullets and missiles. I suspect that the particularly severe rejection of chemical weapons has to do with the way the toxicity spreads after their discharge and how they often kill unintended and uninvolved targets. But that too still sounds like a distinction without a difference. Bombs, missiles and bullets too have routinely killed unintended targets.
According to the United Nations over 100,000 people have died so far in the Syrian conflict. These are deaths caused by traditional weapons, which the world disingenuously avoids calling chemical weapons. According to some estimates about 1000 people have died because of the use of chemical weapons in two instances. To me personally, one death in a war is too many (not to mention any war being too many) but even by rational standards of human outrage the red line that President Barack Obama keeps talking about was crossed a long time ago.
What I am troubled by in this whole debate is how we as a race parse words to such an absurd extent only in order to make them suit our flexible moral constructs.
I am willing to be persuaded about how there is indeed a substantial distinction to be made between what the OPCW defines as chemical weapons and other regular weapons. I promise not to employ my absolutist logic that the universe is all chemistry governed by all physics.