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Chemical weapons: America’s misplaced outrage

Videos of dead and dying Syrian children, apparently victims of a chemical weapon attack on a Damascus suburb, drew almost universal reaction of horror from outraged Americans. The bipartisan response condemned the attack as a “moral obscenity,” “crime against humanity,” and “moral atrocity.” Why has it taken two years for that outrage to surface?

The real crime in Syria is not the death of 1,429 Syrians from a poison gas attack. No, the real crime is a civil war that has killed not 1,429 but more than 100,000 Syrians, including not hundreds but thousands of children and has forced millions of innocent civilians into refugee camps. But a greater blood bath, from more years of warfare and the revenge killings that follow, is still to come.

“Moral obscenity?” Why didn’t Secretary of State John Kerry utter those words when the first 1,429 Syrian men, women and children were killed by conventional weapons? Perhaps those deaths are acceptable since they came from weapons that are considered civilized. The president spoke Tuesday night about a father in disbelief that his children were dead from a chemical attack. Are fathers whose kids’ deaths were inflicted by more traditional means less distraught?

It shouldn’t have taken the slaughter on Aug. 21 to unleash the president’s moral values.

We seem to be unmoved by the death of over 100,000 Syrians — including thousands of children - who died as a result of acceptable weapons: shot, shelled, bombed, bayoneted or in any “humane” way that makes the enemy dead. As long as it isn’t poison gas or one of the other banned means of death, it’s a legitimate act of war.

Chemical weapons are horrendous. But so are atomic bombs, napalm, phosphorous shells, and firestorms created by conventional bombing. Most Americans had no qualms about use of the A-bomb against Japan. It saved lives, we told ourselves. But hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians, children included, died in a manner no less horrible than the manner in which the Syrians died on Aug. 21. There is no doubt that the U.S. would use nuclear weapons again if the survival of the nation depended upon it.

For Syrian loyalists, fearing what will happen to certain ethnic communities should the rebels win, the use of poison gas could in the end be seen as a means of saving lives.

The United States developed chemical weapons long ago. A decision was made during the Nixon administration to dispose of those weapons. Four decades later that task is still being carried out. Could it be that our government and military are reluctant to completely deplete our stock of poison gas and what other deadly “moral obscenities” comprise that weapons cache because the day may come when we need to use them, even against civilians?

Don’t misunderstand. This piece is not a defense of chemical weapons. But why be outraged by their use on civilians when conventional weapons have killed in Syria many times the number of deaths attributed to poison gas?

Ban the use of chemical weapons? Yes. But don’t stop there. Ban their manufacture. Ban maintenance of stockpiles. But don’t expect to hear the voice of the president or the generals in support of that.

In addition, exert some moral authority in a full court diplomatic press to bring the war in Syria to an end without further violence.

It is time for the president to earn that undeserved Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded only a short time after his election. Threatening missile strikes against Syria isn’t the way. In the end, he may have to give his prize to the Russian president.

Ralph E. Shaffer is professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly Pomona and an occasional contributor to Stephens Media