THE BLOG

A Demonology of Chemical Weaponry

09/09/2013 12:15 pm ET | Updated Nov 09, 2013

There are some fears so primordially inescapable that they get fetishized in different cultures as malevolent demons and devils. Ceasing to believe in the actual existence of such preternatural creatures doesn't mean that the archetypal fears that spawned them disappear. They simply get transferred to other objects.

Recent polls reveal that the American public is overwhelmingly against a U.S. air strike to punish Syrian leader Bashir Assad for using chemical weaponry in Syria's brutal civil conflict. But this is an indication of the public's weariness with American involvement in foreign wars, not its indifference to chemical weapons. When it comes right down to it, most of us are terrified by the thought of chemical warfare.

For nearly a century, ever since the Germans used chlorine gas in the Second Battle of Ypres, the specter of such weapons has haunted the western imagination even more than that of nuclear ones. We're frightened of the havoc conventional bombs can wreak, and chilled by the thought of mushroom clouds. But the terror chemical weapons evoke is in a class of its own, freezing our blood in the same way that belief in demons and devils panicked our ancestors. And that's the clue for understanding why we so fear them. They've become the repositories of our most ancient and deep-seated fears. Chemical weapons are our demons, the sum of all that's evil. Chemical weaponry is demonology.

Consider the characteristics of such weaponry. Like all demons, it's invisible and insidious. It roams through the air at will, killing indiscriminately and silently. It seems to come from nowhere and to return to nowhere after it spreads its destruction. Victims can't hide from it, can't fight it, can't challenge it forth to do battle with it. Resistance is useless. It's sheer otherness baffles, terrifies, and defeats us.

The horror of the demon of chemical weaponry comes through clearly in the way that it takes its victims. It doesn't slaughter in the "clean" way that conventional bombs and bullets do. Instead, the demon kills by stealing away its victims' breath, their pneuma, spiritus, ruah, the very essence of life itself. It clutches them in a ghoulish embrace that inevitably climaxes in convulsions, purpled face, frothing, bulging eyes, and agony. In their death throes, its victims look possessed, and the uncanny appearance of their corpses, flesh intact but faces discolored and frozen in grimaces, is zombie-like, as if their souls had been sucked from them.

Demons are cunning deceivers -- the gospelist John calls Satan the "father of lies" -- which is one of the reasons they're so good at seducing unwary victims. Chemical weaponry is likewise a deceiver, not announcing its presence, as any honest weapon does, until it's too late, and a seducer, tempting nations with their backs to the wall to enter into diabolical pacts with it. But to succumb to the blandishments of a demon is to become its victim. Nations foolish enough to conjure the malevolent imp of chemical weaponry quickly discover that, once let loose, it's uncontrollable.

Chemical weaponry, the new demonology, symbolizes our darkest, most archetypal fears. That's why its use is so taboo and the prospect of it so alarming. This isn't to overlook that there are very obvious practical reasons to dread chemical weapons: they're relatively cheap weapons to manufacture, portable enough to be used by terrorists, and their proliferation would add yet one more weapon to a war-making world's already over-stuffed arsenal.

But the deeper origin of our aversion to them is their demonic nature. It's utterly irrelevant, of course, whether one believes in the literal reality of malevolent spirits or regards them as superstitious throwbacks to a more credulous age. What is relevant is that the same dread that older cultures translated into the language of demonology we invest today in chemical weaponry.