The Thin, Red Line

On March 16th, 1988, airplanes flying sorties above the Kurdish city of Halabja in Northern Iraq began dropping bombs that released billowing clouds of gas. The gas covered the civilian population in the city centre, a nearby village, and the roads leaving the city, enveloping them in white, black and yellow smoke.

Within minutes, thousands of people were dead or dying on the ground. Survivors described both unbearable scenes of chaos and suffering. Victims dropped dead to the ground where they stood, others “died laughing”, many reported suffocation, blistering skin burns, convulsions, spasms or intensive vomiting. One reporter described the scene as “life frozen”, like a film stuck on a single frame. He describes walking into a kitchen and seeing a woman holding a knife, dead in the middle of cutting up a carrot.

The clouds of gas eventually rose into columns and dispersed, leaving thousands of dead men, women and children — the pictures of the children in particular are devastating — as well as the corpses of dead pets, cattle and dead songbirds, littering the streets. Many of them showed little outward signs of violence. As though thousands of people just all of a sudden, for no apparent reason, dropped dead.

The gas, some victims later reported, smelled like apples.

A sarin molecule. Death by covalent bond.


March 20th, 1995: During the morning rush hour, members of the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult brought packets of liquid sarin — a nerve agent — onto the packed cars of the Tokyo Subway. The cult members moved the packets of plastic-wrapped sarin onto the trains in bundles of newspaper, dropped them on the floor, and stabbed them with sharpened umbrella tips. They then left the cars at the next station, allowing the volatile liquid sarin to evaporate into gas and disperse. Thousands of people were injured and thirteen people died. Around 50 people were severely injured.

In his masterful non-fiction work on the subway attack, Underground — easily his best book — author Haruki Murakami notes that the press coverage in the aftermath tended to focus on the perpetrators and their spectacular story. They did not see the victims. The victims whose lives had been disjointed by the violence that suddenly erupted in them. 

After exposure to the gas, many victims walked to work, not realising they were under the influence of nerve gas. Their eyes constricted, blinding them. They also had headaches, nausea, fatigue and severe spasms.

It was blind luck that more people didn’t die. The terrorists were not aware that in order to be effective, they ought to have stepped on the parcels, allowing all the liquid sarin out at the same time (which would almost certainly have killed the terrorists themselves).

And all these people carried on with their lives, their acetylcholinesterase enzyme levels bouncing back, muscles in eyes, jaws, lungs, hands unclenching from involuntary locks.

Mustard gas.


After the attacks, the traumas continue. Psychological aftereffects persist throughout life, often returning in late or middle age, if the trauma occurred in someone younger. Little changes of personality, passed on down the generations. Injuries, neuroses, stress levels slightly too high. Tempers slightly too tight. Anxiety attacks that come a little easier.

The long-term physical effects are worse, and very poorly understood. Brain and nerve damage persists after exposure. People become paralysed, bedridden, suffer from chronic pains. And the poisons seem to seep into the biosphere, the soil and the genetic makeup of the town. Even today, the rate of miscarriages, birth defects, mutations and cancers in the Halabja region are much higher than in the surrounding areas. There are reports of bones growing wrong, of crops failing. As though the very ground, the city and the population collectively absorbed the trauma and now carry it with them forward into their future, like a scar, a crippling injury collected into the genetic makeup of the town.


In the early morning hours of yesterday, according to the latest reports, somebody — government forces, most likely — launched what appears to be a chemical weapons attack in the Ghouta area near Damascus. As many as 1.300 people were killed. The numbers and the circumstances are still very much in the dark.

Videos of the aftermath show children gasping like fish on land, frantically talking with the telltale pinprick eyes of sarin victims, the shattering rows of little corpses. Reports of that same sense of life stopped, corpses without wounds in the streets seem to abound.

This is huge news, obviously. President Obama has previously said that use of chemical weapons would be “a red line for us“. The French government has said that use of chemical weapons should trigger a military intervention in Syria.

The Russians, being big fans of killing children with poisonous gas, apparently, just completely gutted any attempt to do anything about this in the UN. Meanwhile, Obama is dodging the issue. Having just begun the winding down of a decade of futile wars of unclear benefit, he doesn’t want to get involved in Syria. As the evidence and confidence that this was actually a poison gas attack are mounting steadily, pressure on the Obama administration, NATO and the UN grows. Most likely, there will be new supply chains of weapons to the rebels, but something more substantial needs to happen.

I’ve opposed a lot of wars in the past twenty years, but I’m starting to think that at the very least, weapons to the opposition and an intense air campaign against Assad’s forces military capability and especially their chemical weapons stockpiles at this point would be a substantial step forward. We’ve allowed over 100.000 people to be killed over the past two and a half years. This war doesn’t seem to be winding down. Force from the international community seems like a logical step.

But that’s not really what I’m trying to say here. That’s not the only thing we should notice and think about.

Tabun, another nerve agent


The thing that’s important to notice is the obvious one. It’s the thing which we should all stop for a moment and just look at, whatever we think about what should be done about Syria (if anything).

That thing is that being hit by chemical weapons — nerve gases in particular — are just a spectacularly horrible way to die. It’s a level of pain, fear and suffering which is completely impossible to imagine. These weapons are spectacularly illegal. Rules against poisonous weapons are built into the foundations of humanitarian law. The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 hold laws against it, The Geneva Protocol of 1925 bans it, and the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1992 is the big stick that has reduced the amount of chemical weapons left in the world to — as far as I can tell from reading up on this tonight — only stockpiles left in the USA, Russia, North Korea and … Syria.

What the attacks in Ghouta reminds us is that these kinds of weapons represent a particular kind of inhumanity, a deeper level of disengagement from our human obligations to each other, even in warfare. The bans on chemical weapons were major advances of human progress when they were ratified. They were little glimmers of humanity at its best. Undisputed moments of civilisation advancing. And that dam has pretty much held. Except for Halabja and Ghouta, there have been very few major episodes of chemical weapon attacks since World War II.

And while being blown to bits or shattered or shot or torn by flying pieces of metal or flying debris is just as horrible, in some ways, as the fear and horror of chemical death. But there’s a major argument to made about what kind of weapons chemical weapons are:

Still, to understand what makes the norm against chemical weapons so important, you have to understand that it’s chemical weapons’ strengths as well as their weaknesses make them so dangerous. They’re very, very useful for killing large numbers of civilians indiscriminately, but they’re actually much less practical for winning conventional battles. A chemical war, then, is not just a war that kills more people; it’s a qualitatively different kind of war. Their use encourages militaries to seek victory by destroying civilian populations, which becomes much easier to do when you use chemical weapons, than by overcoming the enemy military on the battlefield.

They made a lot of sense as area denial weapons in conventional warfare with massed armies at the beginning of the last century. Today, they make no such sense. Now they’re good for killing a lot of people in cities quickly and without damaging the structures. Which basically means that they are weapons particularly good for killing civilians.

VX, a nerve agent

But that thin, red line is so easily crossed. And the covalent bonds of humanity so easily substituted for the covalent bonds of the sarin enzyme inhibition reaction. What’s so special about chemical weapons? A lot of things, but most of all I think they’re just a good occasion to stop, draw the red line, consider the fact that some things just quite simply should not be done. Should not be tolerated, should not be considered. Some acts just aren’t things humans do to each other. Even when we’re at our worst. Not as long as we draw breath.

  1. Wow. This article is so well written and eye opening. Your ending is still resonating with me now, well done.

    • Release said:

      Thanks! I’m so happy you liked it. As I wrote on the greatest hits page, this piece hardly had a single reader when I published it. Glad someone read it! 🙂

      • Well I will be revisiting the greatest hits page because this was brilliant!

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