Estimates of the number of deaths in the Syrian conflict range from 83,000 to over 110,000, yet in the last weeks Bashir Assad’s alleged (and increasingly proven) use of chemical weapons to attack the resistance highlights the particular horror of chemical attacks versus conventional warfare. Indeed, exposure to toxins, chemicals, radiation and biological weapons—all invisible stressors—that cause suffering, disease and death, but are impossible to see has its own brand of horror.
Terrorists have long known that the way to strike terror into the hearts of an entire populace is to strike hard, and spectacularly, on a few and allow media amplification to do the rest—spreading ripples of horror from the fewdead to convince everyone that everywhere is dangerous.
Having worked with victims of the Chernobyl disaster and other toxic exposures, I know that when some are struck ill or die from an invisible stressor, the fear of it quickly spreads like a cancer throughout society. For fomenting terror, there is nothing like the threat of an invisible stressor that no one can easily detect, but nearly everyone comes to fear. Chemical weapons accomplish this in a particularly horrific manner—they spread the fear that toxic particles can be released at anytime, anywhere and the normal citizen has no idea how to detect, much less protect himself and his loved ones from death.
Thus even though Bashir Assad’s alleged use of rockets dropping toxic agents to kill approximately two thousand rebels (and their families) was limited, given the entire scope of the conflict—the horror of the attack quickly rippled throughout Syrian society and indeed around the world, causing the international community to vociferously debate how to respond.
The media amplification began immediately with dozens of horrific videos immediately released by the victims’ families and health care providers showing distressed and visibly sick adults and children in makeshift hospitals with no external injuries—yet struggling for their very lives. The reports of patients suffering convulsions, pinpointed pupils, and struggling to breathe quickly permeated society and evidence of a sarin attack was eventually confirmed. Some of these videos displayed dozens of bodies—including the corpses of young children and infants—laid out in rows on the floor of makeshift clinics.
In this attack we see that despite the high number of deaths already racked up in the Syrian conflict, the regime’s alleged use of chemical attack has a particularly potent psychological aspect to it. Now Syrians, everywhere, have to contend with the horror of knowing the regime possesses additional such weapons and may use them at anytime against anyone, and there is likely very little they can do to protect themselves from it. Assad’s state sponsored terror has taken on a whole new level of horror that indeed does beg for a red line.
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry in the Georgetown University Medical School and has conducted research interviews with victims of various types of chemical, radiological and toxic exposures. She is the author of Talking to Terrorists: Understanding the Psycho-Social Motivations of Militant Jihadi Terrorists, Mass Hostage Takers, Suicide Bombers & “Martyrs”, Fetal Abduction: The True Story of Multiple Personalities and Murder and coauthor of Warrior Princess: A U.S. Navy SEALs Journey to Coming out Transgender.