Saturday 27 May 2017

The worrying global lessons from Syria chemical attack

US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley holds photographs of victims during a meeting at the UN Security Council on Syria at the UN Headquarters in New York City. Photo: Reuters
US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley holds photographs of victims during a meeting at the UN Security Council on Syria at the UN Headquarters in New York City. Photo: Reuters

Peter Apps

In terms of raw casualty numbers, Tuesday's apparent nerve gas attack near the Syrian city of Khan Sheikhoun - believed to have killed at least 70 - should hardly be significant against the backdrop of a war that has left hundreds of thousands of people dead.

But that was never the point of chemical weapons. Since European powers first used them over a century ago at the height of World War I, they have held a psychological and political shock value in many ways out of proportion to their physical or military effect. Alongside the threat of biological warfare, they hold a very distinct horror.

In the trenches of World War I, doctors noted that the paralysing fear of a gas attack often exceeded that of conventional artillery and bombs, even though the latter killed many more people.

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