By Robert Folsom | September 4, 2013
On June 13, the Obama administration said the Syrian government had used chemical weapons “on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year,” and that those attacks left between 100 and 150 people dead.
But on August 21, a far more grim report surfaced: Syrian government forces had used chemical weapons in the opposition-controlled Ghouta region outside Damascus, with an estimated death toll of between 600 and 1,700. Most of the dead and wounded were civilians. It was the worst single day of casualties since the conflict in Syria began in March 2011.
Use of these weapons amounted to crossing a “red line” that President Obama has long implied would trigger U.S. military action in Syria. He has aggressively lobbied Congress to back such a move and several Republican leaders quickly offered their support. This week brought talk of a United Nations resolution demanding that Syria “hand over its chemical stockpile,” but the Obama administration is still calling on Congress to authorize the use of force.
Numerous reports say the chemical attacks involve sarin gas, a nerve agent hundreds of times more lethal than cyanide. Within minutes of exposure the victim can suffer loss of bodily functions, go into convulsions, and suffocate.
For nearly a century almost all nations have agreed that the use of such weapons is a war crime. The very idea of being civilized seems to demand action to stop such crimes by any means necessary. Is there a mitigating perspective one can offer?
Well, please consider the following: The U.N. estimates that the overall death toll in Syria’s two-plus-year civil war now exceeds 100,000. Half those deaths were civilian. Tens of thousands more are in Syrian jails, where torture is common (including the alleged torture of children). Some 28,000 people are reported missing. The U.N. also says four million people within Syria have been displaced by the war, while two million Syrians have become refugees in surrounding countries.
Thus at least six million Syrians have fled their homes, or some 27% of the country’s population. That is the equivalent of 85 million people in the U.S., or the combined populations of California, New York and Texas.
So: The appalling scale of death and suffering in Syria is appalling apart from the use of chemical weapons. Death by sarin gas is a marginal increase in the number of dead.
Yes, sarin is a horrifying way to die. But, from the perspective of, say, a civilian in Syria — is it a “crossing the red line” worse way to die? Worse than dying from a gunshot wound, or in an artillery explosion, or a shrapnel wound, or murder in prison, or due to the deprivations of life as a refugee?
Obviously worse enough for an outside country to intervene militarily in another country’s civil war?
Now, this is not to take a position on that specific question — but instead to go deeper than “Why,” and ask the always-relevant socionomic question, namely “Why now?”
These questions have no easy answers. For the beginning of an answer, I humbly recommend Alan Hall’s short article, “Living in a Materiel World,” in the just-published Socionomist. I’ve arranged for the article to be delivered free to Socionomics Club members here (login required).
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