Non-Lethal Tools of Death

The use of non-lethal weapons in non-war conflicts is often brought up as a neutral or even positive occurrence, the idea being that their use is the preferable alternative to lethal weapons. For the most part, sure, it is better that people be injured by rubber bullets rather than torn apart by hollow points, incapacitated by tear gas rather than made to suffocate on their own blood through use of chlorine or mustard gas. It’s better to use non-lethal (more accurately, less-lethal) weapons than straight up bombing people. This does not mean that it is good, or even okay, or should be at all acceptable in the overwhelming majority of cases.

Rubber bullets and tear gas are popular tools of fascist states wishing to evade international condemnation and maintain an air of respectability when violently quelling anything from actual riots to peaceful protests.

Rubber bullet” is commonly a misnomer. The term makes it sound like police are shooting bouncy balls at people. What is usually used are actually rubber-coated steel balls. The thin layer of rubber (usually) prevents the projectiles from penetrating skin, but the supersonic impact of a steel ball can still result in broken bones, damaged organs, cracked skulls, brain damage, blindness, and, more commonly than law enforcement would care to admit, death.

Partly for those risks, but also because rubber bullets (or the rubber-coated steel variety) are, surprisingly, not a good way of calming people (if you were making a little ruckus and someone shot a hard ball at your ass, would your automatic response be to behave more politely?), tear gas is often the favored option.

The name “tear gas” as a term also fails to accurately describe what it is and does. The toxic gas does irritate the tear ducts, but it does far more than make people cry. It affects primarily the eyes and respiratory system. In the latter case, it damages the lungs, throat and nostrils, making it difficult or impossible to breathe. It can permanently scar the eyes, lungs, skin and throat. And yes, it absolutely can kill you.

Many people are unaware that it is illegal to use tear gas in war. Tear gas is a chemical weapon, therefore banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention. Yet despite being illegal for use in warfare, where the understood goal of either side is to kill one another, tear gas is regularly used by state law enforcement against their own citizens. It’s practically routine. Anytime you read or hear of protests, demonstrations, or riots, in this country and many others around the world, it is almost inevitable that mention of police or soldiers using tear gas will be made.

That tear gas is a chemical weapon and therefore banned by international law demands that we examine certain cases in which its use can be construed as an act of war. While I despise the logic by which it is deemed permissible for state actors to use tear gas on their own citizens, on civilians of any kind, within the borders of the state, it is all the more galling the way the “legal” bounds of chemical weapons use has been flagrantly ignored. In January of this year, American agents used tear gas on migrants near the border of San Diego, in Mexico. Americans deployed chemical weapons against civilians, foreign nationals, within the borders of a sovereign nation. Putting aside the unethical cruelty of launching poison gas canisters at desperately tired, hungry and poor, unarmed people, this was arguably an act of war and a war crime committed at the behest of the United States government. Granted, there was never any formal declaration of war made by the US against Mexico, but such a shortcoming hasn’t succeeded in preventing our unilateral wars against other, drastically militarily outmatched, countries for decades.

And anyway, US border agents regularly violate Mexican sovereignty and international law, and commit war crimes with relative impunity. Border Patrol agents have murdered Mexican citizens, including children, on Mexican land, and faced little consequence.

We are not the only nation that makes a habit of shitting on international law, specifically as pertains to the Chemical Weapons Convention. The Israeli military uses tear gas, as well as far more destructive and fatal forms of assault, against Palestinians all the time. The loophole there is, I suppose, that because the Israeli government denies Palestinians both the rights of either citizenship or sovereignty, they can justify their actions as not qualifying as warfare and need not worry about democratic civil backlash.

Even if we can disingenuously skirt the accusation of using tear gas as a chemical weapon of war, it is unclear how we slide past the other prohibitions of the Chemical Weapons Convention. It is illegal to develop, possess, transfer, stockpile, sell, or encourage the use of chemical weapons. Yet, we do all of that. Tear gas is produced in obscene quantities in this country, much of it in Jamestown, Pennsylvania, from where it is marketed, sold and shipped to law enforcement agencies throughout the country and all over the world, where fascists and despots can use it with abandon on democratic activists or whomever else they choose. Even if we weren’t using the stuff as a weapon for warfare, which it’s easy to argue we are, the very fact that we produce and sell a fuck-ton of the stuff is illegal and horribly unethical on its own.