Chemical weapons are deadly and repulsive.
In 1998, as part of a research project on chemical weapons disposal, I traveled to the Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility in Utah. Two years later, I visited Johnston Island in the South Pacific, midpoint between Hawaii and the Marshall Islands. Access to these facilities required special clearance from the U.S. government, which I was granted as a scholar.
Both trips were rare opportunities for a civilian (I was neither military nor support personnel) to see inside the facilities constructed to dispose of our nation’s stockpile of chemical weapons and to talk to people involved in disposal operations.
The stockpile was in the process of being destroyed in accordance with the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction — the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The United States government had elected, with limited public input, to incinerate our 34,000-ton stockpile, a decision that led to controversy across many of the communities where incineration would take place.
A sociologist, I was interested in the texture of these controversies and in the local implementation of a major global treaty. How, I wanted to know, did the military, local governments, citizens, and activists navigate this highly contested terrain, especially in towns like Tooele, where many community members were employed in or by the facilities that could potentially also harm them.
In Tooele and on Johnson Island (termed “JI” by folks stationed there), my first stop was the safety office, where I was fitted with a gas mask, taught how to use it, and handed an emergency bag with atropine. I was to carry this bag with me at all times, not only inside the facility but on the grounds, too. On JI, this meant my mask and atropine went everywhere I did on the 1,300-hectare atoll. Had I been without my protective gear in the event of an accidental release of Sarin or VX, I could have been injured or killed.
I ended my research on chemical weapons when I became pregnant with my first child, in 2001. I could not imagine visiting additional facilities while pregnant and potentially having to don a gas mask.
There is a reason chemical weapons were used in previous military conflicts; they are effectively deadly. This is also the reason they were banned. Blistered skin, eye damage, inability to breathe, collapse of the central nervous system, nausea, vomiting, seizures, hemorrhaging and grotesquely painful deaths, plus the indiscriminate nature of their harm (gases drift), ultimately led to their ban in warfare under the Geneva Convention and the CWC.
However, an exception to the global ban is tear gas, or CS gas, used by law enforcement worldwide. In the United States, tear gas is most often deployed for riot control. Though it is allowable under specific limited terms of the CWC, as a chemical weapon it is banned in warfare and against noncombatants.
On Sunday, at the U.S.-Mexico border, Customs and Border Protection agents gassed migrants from Central America seeking asylum. The migrants, many of whom are women and children, were attempting to cross the border into the United States. They were unarmed and exhausted from their journey.
The Washington Post reports that “women and children, some in diapers, also came into contact with tear gas, raising questions about whether the use of gas was an appropriate response.”Let me be clear: the use of gas is not an appropriate response.
It is both immoral and illegal, and should be immediately investigated by international human rights organizations and our own watchdogs. While tear gas is allowable for domestic use, firing tear gas canisters across an international border at unarmed noncombatants exceeds domestic use.
The American Civil Liberties Union has already responded to CBP’s actions, stating “Under no circumstances should CBP be using tear gas on children. This show of violence is outrageous and inhumane. The migrants at our southern border are human beings, including mothers and small children, who are exercising their legal, human right to seek asylum.”
Though shocking in its cruelty and inhumanity, the use of tear gas against migrants is unsurprising. The Trump Administration has waged a racist, xenophobic campaign against immigrants, and has done so in ways that upend basic tenets of our nation’s founding.
Today, the Statue of Liberty weeps from the sight of toddlers choking on tear gas, their mothers desperately attempting to drag them to safety, no protective masks or atropine at hand. Desperate people, already on the run from conditions in their own countries, now running from our own border patrol agents and their debilitating chemical weapons.
Weapons, it must be said, that are banned for use in warfare and against noncombatants.
Are we great yet?
Monica J. Casper, Ph.D., is a sociologist at the University of Arizona.