The situation in Syria is deeply distressing. Nobody wants to see nearly 1,500 civilians lying dead, 400 children among them, the victims of chemical weapons. But anybody can see that a U.S. retaliatory strike against the Assad regime for apparently gassing its own citizens may well solve nothing, complicate much, and doom many in the Middle East, if not beyond.
We Americans have been told that with the use of chemical weapons “the red line has been crossed.” So now we must act. With force. Even if we must act alone.
Let’s talk a bit about this “red line,” shall we? Prohibitions against chemical warfare, such as the Geneva Protocol signed in 1925, grew largely out of the world’s revulsion at seeing a million people die of gassing during World War I. A million dead—horrific. But wasn’t the 28 million dead due to conventional weapons in that war exceedingly more horrific? Both conventional weapons and chemical weapons are “weapons of mass destruction.”
So perhaps the red line concerns not the quantity of the dead, but the quality of their dying. Sarin gas, for instance—within minutes its victims convulse and seize, struggle to breathe, vomit, lose control of their bowels…. Terrible. But is dying by gas really worse than dying from a bullet in the gut, or a traumatic brain injury, or radiation poisoning? Is there really a good way, as opposed to a bad way, to suffer and die in a war? Ask those living and dying in war zones to split such hairs.
Perhaps then the red line concerns the identity of the victims. The conventions of modern warfare justly prohibit the targeting of civilians. Those who were gassed in Syria were apparently innocents, not soldiers or rebels—their murder was criminal, barbaric. But most of the 100,000 Syrians killed by conventional weapons in that bloody civil war have also been innocents. Their slaughter is just as heinous. In modern warfare the distinction between combatant and civilian seems to matter little, if at all.
This red line is proving troublesome, isn’t it? Its significance is hard to analyze. But its cryptic quality may itself be a clue to its nature. It may be that crossing this red line is “taboo” because it leads us into the mysterious realm of our most primal fears. As a species we typically dread falling victim to the unknown, the unseen, the uncontrollable, the unstoppable. We fear being at the mercy of blood-thirsty gods who suddenly (and invisibly) come among us, indiscriminately killing, like poison gas. The red line exists to keep us a safe distance from them. When that line is transgressed, no words can save us, or express our terror.