The very likely use of Sarin gas by the Syrian military in an attack on rebel-held territory killed some 1400 people, many of them children and women who had no active role in the civil war. The targeting of civilian populations, whether by conventional bombs, atomic bombs, or gas warfare is a crime against humanity, justified by the user with utilitarian ethics claiming it prevents an even greater loss of life if such a show of force is not used. The one thing Churchill, Stalin, Hitler, and Roosevelt agreed on in WWII was the use of utilitarian ethics to justify their bombings of civilians in cities and rationalizing the losses as collateral damage.
Why was chemical warfare singled out after WWI as a banned weapon system? Gas attacks are difficult to target and wind shifts can cause them to shift to civilian sites They are relatively cheap to manufacture and they do not provide effective defense systems for civilians. This is particularly true for the nerve gases that have been stockpiled in violation of international law. Sarin gas is particularly gruesome in its convulsive effects on the neuromuscular system and many of the victims stop breathing or slowly strangle to death.
A leading critic of gas warfare, Matthew Meselson, told me several years ago that chemical weapons would be used by smaller nations if their use was not made a war crime with surety of arrest and punishment. His prediction has come true. They are easy to manufacture and their costs are miniscule compared to a nuclear weapons program. Ironically many of the people, who believe that an iron fist policy is the only one that their country’s enemy respects, also believe that their own civilians and soldiers are toughened in their spines if an enemy resorts to the use of such weapons. This double standard ["we will make them cry, Uncle" versus "we will fight to the last man"] exists for users of all weapons systems and goes back to antiquity but few people point out this contradiction in human belief.
If neither the United States nor the United nations responds to Syria’s use of gas warfare by military response, what other options are there? One policy is labeling such a nation as a pariah nation and imposing a blockade to its receiving military weapons by air, land, or sea. A second policy would be a diplomatic offensive with sanctions on that nation’s overall economy, transfer of money in international trade, and freezing of assets around the world. It would include cutting off landing rights to its commercial aircraft. It would block travel by their civilians. War may not be the answer to those who use chemical weapons, but doing nothing is a terrible response.