The United States recently threatened military action against Syria in response to the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons.
This week we’re thinking about the ethics of Weapons of Mass Destruction — a massive topic. But for once, at least we don’t have to search for a definition. It comes straight from a United Nations commission in 1947: Weapons of mass destruction “include atomic explosive weapons, radioactive material weapons, lethal chemical and biological weapons, and any weapons developed in the future which have characteristics comparable in destructive effect to those of the atomic bomb or other weapons mentioned above.”
That’s an interesting list, but I’m not sure it’s a definition. It’s not clear what nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons have in common. It can’t just be that they’re all horrible. Is it because they're more destructive than any others that we call them Weapons of Mass Destruction? In 1947 they weren’t; the atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima -- each caused in the neighborhood of 75,000 deaths -- were actually less destructive than the conventional bombing raids on Tokyo or Dresden.
But it only took two atomic bombs to do all that damage, compared to thousands of bombs dropped on Dresden. Could that efficiency be morally relevant? Think of today’s hydrogen bombs -- they're so efficient at killing that one of them dropped at the order of a deranged megalomaniac could wipe out the entire population of New York City.
And where does that leave biological and chemical weapons? They’re not nearly as destructive, but they are efficient. That’s what makes them frightening, especially in an age of terrorism. A terrorist equipped with the right chemical or biological weapon could kill a lot more people than he could with a machine gun, or with a conventional bomb strapped to his waist.
But I’m still not convinced that the efficient killing of people makes a moral difference. Was it really worse for Assad to gas a thousand people in Syria rather than gun them down? It just seems there's something worse about WMDs that we haven’t quite put our finger on.
But while we’re struggling to find a moral difference between WMDs and conventional weapons, it’s important to realize how we got where we are. In 1947, when the US was the only nuclear power, we had an opportunity to rid the world forever of these weapons. And it is a moral tragedy that we failed to do so.
That said, it doesn’t do much good to keep living in the past. The genie is already out of the bottle, and the world is awash in these weapons. Today any would-be terrorist can google how to build a nuclear bomb; chemical weapons are everywhere; germ warfare is just around the corner. And of course we’re not alone in the nuclear club anymore -- there are now nine known nuclear powers. If you look at how we tiptoe around those nuclear powers, you’ve got to ask why any reasonable nation wouldn’t want to get their hands on some nuclear weapons.
That’s a frightening thought, one that makes it seem inevitable that some day these things are going to be used on a massive scale. Perhaps a conversation with our guest, Scott Sagan, will alleviate some of these fears.