Pick your poison

While listening to President Obama's handling of the Syrian crisis, one detail stuck out. The "red line," which would trigger US involvement, is whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons on his own people. Cross that line, Obama says, and we will intervene.

While I understand that the use of chemical weapons is banned by international law, I was curious about the moral logic involved.

Chemical weapons cause victims to suffocate -- by paralyzing their lung muscles (like sarin), by blistering their lungs (like mustard gas) or by preventing the uptake of oxygen (like cyanide). It's a horrible way to die, though it can argued that it can be quick and effective -- if you get enough to kill you outright.

It's interesting that suffocating human beings is considered so heinous that nations will go to war to punish other regimes from using them. But that leaves many, many techniques that are evidently acceptable for killing people:
  • Piercing them with bullets or knives that cause internal bleeding and organ damage
  • Exploding weapons near them whose shock waves and shrapnel rip off their limbs or drive objects into them with lethal force
  • Causing buildings to fall on them, crushing them or burying them alive
  • Exploding weapons that burn their victims to death, either directly or by trapping them in burning buildings
  • Slashing them with knives or other sharp weapons that cause incapacitation and severe bleeding
  • Stopping up their airways with hands or with cord, preventing them from breathing
  • Striking them with blunt objects, causing eventual fatal injury from physical trauma or immediate death crushing their skulls
I'm sure I missed a few.

Strictly speaking, I'm not a pacifist, though I advocate using peaceful means before lethal means whenever possible. But you have to admit that a red line that so much lethality on its "accepted" side is a curious thing.