I am well into Things I Don’t Understand™ territory here so forgiveness ahead of time if I’m talking out of my ass.
President Obama said a month or two ago that the use of chemical weapons in Syria by the Assad government was a “red line” that could not be crossed. It wasn’t specified, but people have rightly taken this to mean that the use of chemical weapons would be the deciding factor in U.S. intervention in Syria. Well, chemical weapons have almost certainly been used in Syria now and the Obama administration is, thankfully, hedging and saying that we don’t know for sure if chemical weapons were used and, if they were, we don’t know who used them.
That’s all fine and dandy, but why the “red line” on chemical weapons to begin with? Why is a chemical attack so greatly reviled while a 2,000 lb bomb is not? It seems completely arbitrary to me. Do chemical weapons produce more secondary casualties than cluster bombs? Do the effects of a chemical attack linger longer than depleted uranium ammunition? Do chemical weapons cause massive infrastructure carnage on top of the loss of life? Do chemical weapons produce much larger amounts of casualties than conventional weapons? Is losing a loved one more devastating because they died from a chemical weapon?
The only thing that I can think of is that chemical weapons are more psychologically devastating to those of us 10,000 miles away. What little we see from the devastating effects of conventional war can be written off in our minds; oh, that person had his limbs ripped off and suffered a massive head wound, of course he’s dead. The same can’t be said for many chemical weapons. The body is intact, often whole. Large groups of perfectly formed dead people causes a mental block in our heads; these people shouldn’t be dead, they look so whole. Dead is dead, though. How they got that way is immaterial. The fact that the dead most likely didn’t deserve death is all that matters.