Chemical Weapons: A History of Selective Outrage


Nikki Hale, United States' Ambassador to the UN, shows pictures of Syrian victims of chemical attacks at an emergency meeting of the Security Council at U.N. headquarters, Wednesday, April 5, 2017. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Nikki Haley, United States’ Ambassador to the UN, shows pictures of Syrian victims of chemical attacks at an emergency meeting of the Security Council at U.N. headquarters, Wednesday, April 5, 2017. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Heartbreaking pictures from the Syrian village of Khan Sheikhoun swept social media on April 4. Harrowing images of death and slaughter emerging from the Levant have become commonplace throughout the six years of the devastating Syrian War. These photos in particular, however, are different than usual. Scattered limbs and blood, scenes most in the country have been desensitized to, were not pictured. It appeared something even more disturbing had transpired. Children were alive with eyes wide open, pupils unable to dilate, just staring into the abyss. Like a scene from a horror movie, it looked like the children had just seen a demon; demonic truly are the perpetrators of this chemical attack.

Evidence is still unclear as to who committed the heinous crime of a chemical attack on civilians. Both the Al-Qaeda rebels and the Syrian government were found responsible for using chemical weapons at various times throughout the war, but both deny using them in the recent slaughter. Regardless of hard evidence, however, President Donald Trump and the United States government put full blame on the Syrian Arab Army and launched missile strikes at the airbase where the attack supposedly emanated from. The stern response from Trump, who campaigned on staying out of Syria, surprised and enraged many. Notable supporters of his, including writer Mike Cernovich and pundit Ann Coulter, criticized the strikes and the president’s actions. However, neoconservative commentators who bashed Trump throughout his entire campaign, such as Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol and even top Hillary Clinton ally Peter Daou, praised the military strike and have demanded even more action against the Assad government.

Since the chemical carnage of World War I, many Americans find the use of such weapons as a red line not to be crossed. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson decried President Assad of Syria for being an absolute monster for using such weapons, though seemingly incognizant of the US strike in Mosul a few days earlier which killed about 10 times more people than the chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun. Tillerson later reversed on his statement a week earlier saying Assad will remain in power, now announcing, “The reign of the Assad family is coming to an end.” Considering such a dramatic policy change, Tillerson made it clear that the use of chemical weapons will never be tolerated. However, certain events that came about just a generation ago, right under American watch, paint an entirely contradictory impression.

In 1980, one year after Saddam Hussein became president of Iraq, he launched a brutal invasion of neighboring country Iran. Iraq expected an easy victory over a nation whose military had been disbanded and was in revolutionary disarray. However, Iraqi eagerness to finally gain a victory over a nation it long felt itself in the shadow of came to an end when Iraqi generals soon realized, as millions of untrained and poorly equipped Iranian volunteers repelled the Iraqi invasion, that Iranian nationalism was a force to be dealt with. Only two years later, after regaining all lost territory, the Iranian volunteers staged their own counterattack against Saddam’s well trained and well funded forces, invading Iraq’s eastern lands. The Iraqi government, at the time closely allied with the United States, feared defeat and decided to use chemical weapons against Iranian troops and civilians, using crop-spraying helicopters to dump deadly mustard gas. The United States, supporting Saddam and fearful of Iran’s rise, used its intelligence services to send its allies imagery and maps of Iranian troops. American officials were well aware of Iraq’s use of poison gas, and made sure to veto every Iranian complaint sent to the United Nations.

In contrast to recent American rhetoric highlighting that “our values and morals” will not stand by the use of chemical weapons by anyone, it is clear that during the 1980s the United States applied a different policy, one that was complicit in the use of illegal, poisonous gas against almost 100,000 people, because the perpetrator at the time, Saddam Hussein, was a friend of the United States. Now, however, the situation is different because Bashar al-Assad, the alleged perpetrator of the attack on April 4, is untrustworthy and an enemy of United States interests in the Middle East.

Until American leaders develop consistency with their moral arguments and value the lives of Syrians, Iranians, Palestinians and Yemenis as one and the same, regardless of who is killing them, then supposed American virtues of peace and justice espoused by American leaders are hypocritical and laughable rhetoric, no better than propaganda statements delivered by North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un or this year’s mortal enemy, Russian president Vladimir Putin.



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