Banned in War, Why Is Tear Gas OK Against Civilians?



Assuming the United States adheres to international conventions it has signed (not always the case), we can’t use tear gas in war. The Chemical Weapons Convention treaty , which went into force in 1997, banned the substance’s use in warfare. But we’re cool to use it on our own citizens, as this quite effective meme from has pointed out.

That little shareable quote is effective because it immediately raises questions. First of all, it raises the question of “What the fuck?” Follow-up questions include: “Wait, is that true?” And “How does that work?” There are two main points to look at here: What does the treaty say, and how “bad” is tear gas? In other words — is it banned in warfare? SHOULD it be banned in warfare and/or anywhere else?

Trick or Treaty?

First, the fun stuff: treaty stipulations!! *hysterical cheering* Is the meme right that the United States has pledged not to use tear gas in warfare? Politifact checked this, and ruled that it “is close to being accurate.” But close only counts in horseshoes and chemical warfare, so how close are we talking? Basically, yes, the Chemical Weapons Convention, or CWC, broadly bans “the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention, transfer or use of chemical weapons by States Parties.” And the convention defines tear gas as a chemical weapon. Specifically, tear gas is included under the umbrella of “riot control agents” that cause sensory irritation and other unpleasant things. 

The meme is a little iffy on the year (the treaty went into force in 1997, and was only drafted in 1993), but is otherwise correct. Politifact dings them for eliding some of the context, however. The treaty makes a special provision for using tear gas as domestic riot control. Politifact says:

“[The meme] tries to leverage the Chemical Weapons Convention’s decision to ban tear gas as evidence of why the technique should be illegal for policing, yet that very same convention explicitly allows its use for domestic law enforcement purposes.”

Ok, but that depends on what you mean by “should.” Should as in, “mandated by international law”? Then, no. The Ferguson police are not explicitly violating a binding treaty. Should as in, “the right thing to do”? The meme makes a stronger case on that front. I think the point with this meme was that the banning of tear gas in warfare implies that this is a terrible substance to use on people. So it is also terrible for police to use it. Especially terrible, actually, since these are their fellow citizens.

Here’s how OurTime co-founder Jarrett Moreno characterized the motivation behind the meme when challenged by PolitiFact: “The focus of our post was raising an ethical and moral question: If we can’t use tear gas on our enemies, why is it acceptable to use on our own citizens?”

Yeah, I think that’s a point the meme actually makes pretty clearly. That the convention makes an exception for use by police forces is interesting — and a bit troubling. As Politifact found during its fact-check, it’s a bit odd for a treaty to make such a domestic-use exception. But the meme’s core point still stands: An international treaty has declared this stuff off-limits for war. You can do a lot of bad stuff in war. You can, to name a few, fire machine guns at people and drop bombs. So, tear gas must be pretty bad. And police are using it against U.S. citizens angry because one of their own was executed.

How awful is awful?

So, I think the meme is effective and honest in what it is trying to do. It effectively suggests that tear gas is a terrible thing. But here’s where my second question comes in: Is tear gas as awful as its inclusion in the CWC ban implies? Is it, perhaps, grouped among far-worse agents as a sort of overreach or excessive caution? Does it stand beside sarin gas in the “chemical weapons” lineup the same way that a wiffle bat and a Tommy gun are both weapons?

Well, sort of. Sarin gas will kill you. Tear gas, in most cases, will not. Its use is not without casualties. Some people “controlled” with high levels of tear gas have suffered heart failure and death. At least one person died because the exploding canister hit him in the head.

But tear gas intends to make you feel unpleasant. Sarin intends to make you dead. There is a huge difference there, and that at least partially explains the treaty’s two-faced approach to tear gas. Riot control gas should be kept away from the battlefield, in part, because it could be mistaken for something more deadly. In other words, tear gas is dangerous because it looks like actually dangerous stuff. Politifact quotes political scientist Richard Price: “Part of the thinking is that soldiers in the field don’t have the ability to readily distinguish in the heat of battle if a gas being used is tear gas or something more lethal.” 

Signers of the CWC treaty, however, argued that tear gas is crucial for riot control. Once a riot starts, few things are as effective in stopping it without casualties, these parties said. And, thus, the bifurcated mandate was negotiated.

Let’s Get Gassy

All this sounds like minimizing. So, let’s finally answer the question: How bad is tear gas? No, it won’t (in most cases) kill you, and is (in almost every case) not intended to do so. But it is not benign. “Unpleasant” is a sanitizing word, so let’s actually imagine our sensitive eyeballs and nerves invited to a tear-gas party:

If you get tear-gassed, it means you got hit with one of three chemicals. One of those is pepper spray, of the kind used to casually Weed-Be-Gone some of the Occupy protestors. The others are Mace (chloroacetophenone, or CN) and CS (chlorobenzylidenemalononitrile). The Ferguson cops are probably using CS.

Both CS and CN work by irritating mucous membranes. These are the awesome slimy things that let your eyelids slide over your sight-orbs and keep sex from turning into dry, joyless friction (ideally). This means it makes you get that burny feeling in your eyes, mouth, nose and lungs. Eyes will burn and tear up. The gas makes it hard to breathe and can give you chest pains. If you get really super “controlled,” stuff may come out of both ends, as they say. And, I’m not sure about this, but given that your membranes will be burning, I imagine that this will be some painful barf/squirts.

Here, a (self-alleged) soldier on Yahoo! Answers says that, “It sucks. Your eyes start running and it feels like you’re breathing in fire.” Some have said that the sensation is like drowning. Your body produces mucus, filling up your airways with fluid. That’s why it feels like asphyxiation.

Yes: unpleasant. In another context, we’ve debated whether “drowning sensations” qualify as torture. Remember waterboarding? The international community was pretty clear on that: Yes, it’s torture. I’m not claiming that getting tear gassed is the same as getting George W. Bushed. But, as with the battlefield ban, the association of tear gas with a bigger, badder cousin does point out its own awfulness. It’s not sarin. It’s not torture. But it’s on the continuum.

If nothing else, let’s use the unsanitized words: It’s a “crowd-management agent that causes unpleasant sensations,” yes. But it’s also a “chemical weapon that makes you feel like you’re drowning.” Just because it’s legal to use it against civilians doesn’t mean it’s benign — or that it deserves only benign descriptions when spoken of in that context.

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