Chemical Weapons and Mass Killing in Syria

For the past few weeks, we have watched history in the making.  After the August 21st attack outside of Damascus, in which it has become clear that Bashar al-Assad’s regime used chemical weapons, President Obama spoke of the impetus for the U.S. to militarily intervene in Syria.  Though the “Syrian Crisis” now seems to be on the wane and President Obama has modified his approach, the crisis raised serious questions about the nature and means of death.

Syria has been locked in a deadly civil war for over two years.  More than 100,000 people have died and millions have become refugees.  Yet, it was not until last month that President Obama warned the Assad regime not to cross a “red line,” a metaphorical humanitarian boundary.  The question is, do the means through which a regime murders its people matter?  Is there something fundamentally unthinkable about the use of chemical weapons?  According to a Huffington Post article (See below), not more than 500 casualties were observed from the chemical attacks.  Therefore, is this adequate justification for military intervention?

Without launching a debate on politics or U.S. foreign policy, I would like to discuss the implications of chemical weapons.  They seem to represent monstrous mass killing, not seen since the trench warfare of the first world war.  But they also hold a moral weight.  The argument appears to be that death is not just death, rather, the means matter.  There is something intrinsically horrific about extermination via gas.  President Obama used this idea, when he described children writhing in pain from chemical gas attacks.

The real question, then, is whether the means of death can be compared.  Are specific methods, such as chemical gas, absolutely immoral?  Do they justify U.S. retaliation via airstrike, which would presumably result in much larger civilian casualties, or can we accept that death is death, measurable in scale, but whose means do not matter?  

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