When the news of Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapon attack on the people of Syria first came into focus, many of us in the United States, not knowing what to do with the rage and pain, called for a punitive counterattack. For a brief while it seemed inevitable, and everyone was bracing for the deployment. The idea proposed by President Obama was that our response be brief, forceful, and narrowly targeted. We would respond to Assad’s spray of violence with a laser of violence. The matter would remain within the bounds that we set and that would be that. But many of us feared that it wouldn’t exactly work out that way. Jesus, Mahatma Gandhi, and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. teach that it rarely does work out that way. Violence doesn’t like to sit neatly inside the lines we set for it. The color bleeds and gets everywhere.
Now the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical and Weapons and the United Nations are working together to oversee the destruction of Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile. But this is not so easy either. Look at our own history: as part of an international treaty, the United States pledged back in 1997 to destroy all our chemical weapons in ten years. (That’s amazing in and of itself.) But it’s seventeen years later now, and we’ve still got them. And it’s actually not for lack of trying; it’s really hard to get rid of chemical weapons once they exist. There are health and environmental factors. You can’t transport them, so separate destruction facilities have to be built for each arsenal. We’ve built nine separate destruction facilities so far and spent $35 billion, and we’re still not done. For every $1 it costs to make a chemical weapon, it costs $10 to destroy it.
Like a genie in a bottle, violence and the implements of violence can take on a life of their own. They proliferate. They bloom. They become, in some ways, larger than their creator.
How Violence Proliferates
The story of Fritz Haber is a chilling example of how the tools of violence take on a life of their own. Haber was a twentieth-century German Jewish scientist who first figured out how to separate nitrogen out of the air. As a German patriot who hadn’t experienced much anti-Semitism, Haber was happy to help Germany’s military aims in World War II and help them he did. With Haber’s technique, Germany was able to make nitrogen bombs out of thin air, while the allied forces had to import their nitrogen from abroad. Without Haber, Germany would have failed years earlier. Haber also figured out how to weaponize chlorine and personally supervised its use as a chemical attack on the front. Then he turned his attention to creating pesticides (which are also chemical weapons)—one in particular named Zyklon-B.
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