Does the Psychology of Chemical Weapons Explain the Need for a Red Line?

10/09/2013 21:14 | Updated 10 November 2013

Estimates of the recent number of deaths in the Syrian conflict range from 83,000 to over 110,000, yet it's Bashir Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons to attack the resistance which has galvanized the world.

Why is there particular revulsion over such attacks versus conventional warfare? Even if it's proved to have occurred - it is a relatively small number of people who have died from this alleged chemical attack, compared to far more thousands who have been victims of conventional weapons.

So why the sudden need to respond? Why the red line?

Exposure to toxins, chemicals, radiation and biological weapons-all invisible stressors-that cause suffering, disease and death, but are impossible to see, bring their own brand of horror.

Having worked with victims of disasters like Chernobyl and other toxic exposures that involve invisible stressors, we have learned that when some are struck ill or die from an invisible agent, the fear of it quickly spreads throughout society. For fomenting terror, there is nothing like the threat of an invisible but lethal agent that no one can easily detect.

Terrorists have long known that to strike terror into the hearts of an entire populace they simply need to attack hard and spectacularly on a few, and allow media amplification to do the rest-spreading ripples of horror from the relatively small number of dead to convince everyone that everywhere is dangerous.

Chemical weapons do the same thing in a particularly dreadful 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 themselves and loved ones, from death.

Bashir Assad's alleged use of rockets dropping toxic agents to kill reportedly approximately 2,000 rebels (and their families) was indeed 'limited', given the entire scope of the conflict. Yet revulsion 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 appalling 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 many claim that evidence of a sarin attack is 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.

Despite the thousands of deaths already racked up in the Syrian conflict, the regime's alleged use of chemical weapons includes a particularly potent psychological dimension. Now Syrians everywhere have to contend with the terror of not only knowing the regime possesses such an arsenal but that they may use them at anytime against anyone. The key to this mental confrontation is that there is likely very little the population feel they can do to protect themselves.

Assad's war thus takes on a new psychological tactic; his weapon of mass destruction is now used to subdue through terror and as he amps up the fear his power increases. It's this psychological aspect that must be considered in the debate over chemical weapons, and the world's response. If this emotional dimension is neglected, then it is legitimate to ask why anyone should be particularly affected by deaths from chemistry, as opposed to deaths through physical destruction?

To understand the psychology of chemical weapons upon ordinary individuals it is useful to understand contamination fears, which are a central symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in unhealthy subjects. In this psychiatric disorder an excessive fear of contamination and contagion from unseen germs, dirt or dangerous substances occurs which leads to avoiding physical contact with particular objects or scenarios, such as doorknobs and well-kept toilet seats, which are viewed with accompanying exaggerated disgust and trepidation.

Sufferers from 'contamination fears' get caught in a panic cycle whereby danger is thought to present on the basis of the emotional response to, for example, a doorknob, even in the absence of objective threat. The reasoning is that if anxiety is sensed, then there must be danger. Inferring jeopardy on the basis of a fearful reaction creates a panic spiral. The same occurs with the terror engendered by toxic radiological, chemical and biological exposures that are feared while at the same time unable to be seen and avoided.

'There is real menace' becomes the rapid conclusion, because stress symptoms are noticed, such as tingling, palpitations, sweating and nausea. Now getting more tense, sensing these symptoms as further evidence of real danger, anxiety indicators continue to be misinterpreted as signals from contact with a dangerous substance. Because apprehension is mounting, more physical symptoms arrive, and thus a vicious spiral into panic is created.

These same psychological reactions central to OCD also often occur in normal healthy individuals when radiological accidents or toxic exposures occur. This is because the very real threat, the stressor is invisible, and it's hard to calm and reassure oneself that there is no danger when it may in fact be present. Thus we often see mass hysteria in these situations and an emotional contagion effect where hospitals quickly become overwhelmed with the 'worried well' as well as those actually effected by the toxic exposure.

It is these psychological mechanisms by which panic can spread as a 'real' contagion through a population, quickly-like wild fire. Mass hysteria can therefore more often be triggered by fear of an unseen chemical weapon attack-than being bombed 'conventionally'.

Thus the real alchemy of chemical weapons is the chemistry of horror, and that is why these devices are so potent. They might be instruments of terror in a deeper sense than practically any other modern warhead.

Chemical weapons terrorize a population effectively; and this is psychological warfare - not just chemical conflict. And that is perhaps why, there is a need for a red line.