Photograph: US Army
The Islamic State made headlines this week after a period of unusual media tranquility. Multiple intelligence sources verified previous allegations that the Islamic State used mustard gas against combatants in northern Iraq. These headlines prompted the usual superficial concerns: Did the chemicals emanate from Syria, where state failure has facilitated effortless procurement, or are they from Saddam’s leftover stockpiles? Worse yet, is ISIS merely using, or actually manufacturing chemical weapons? But the question they collectively overlook is: does it really matter?
Mustard gas is a colourless, odourless carcinogenic "human-made chemical warfare agent, classified as a vesicant (blister agent)." Although only lethal in high doses, mustard agents are classified in Schedule 1 by the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, indicating that they have no purpose outside of chemical warfare. Exposure to the gas does not produce immediate symptoms. Within 24 hours, victims suffer from itching and irritation, which eventually develop into large blisters that heal akin to conventional burns.
If these facts seem underwhelming, that’s because they are. ISIS is famed for unrelenting cruelty and publicized shock value. Their brutality has made it such that nothing they do is unexpected. But their use of a substance that doesn’t result in painful nor cinematographic death seems contrary to their monstrous identity. The long-lingering psychological impacts left by chemical agents should not be understated, but the Islamic State has always preferred more immediate results. Nonetheless, the media is fascinated with their use of chemical substances, creating an odd dissonance when comparing burns and blisters to the brutal beheadings that ISIS has built a reputation upon.
We didn’t blink when the Islamic State ordered prisoners to dig their own graves, where they were then buried until their lungs asphyxiated from depleting oxygen, their flesh bursting at each finger as they defiantly clawed against definite death. We’ve never wondered what type of steel the Islamic State uses to slit throats, nor what fibers the ropes used for hangings are woven of. What is it about gas that sets it apart, demanding our undivided attention?
According to scholars, it’s that chemical weapons carry a particular taboo. UBC Political Science Professor Dr. Richard Price posed this question nearly two decades ago: "how is it that among the countless technological innovations in weaponry that have been used by humankind, [chemical weapons] almost alone have come to be stigmatized as morally illegitimate?" How is being incinerated by a flamethrower or having your limbs torn off by the explosion of a grenade any less brutal than being exposed to a chemical weapon? Chemical strategy isn't even especially effective on the battlefield, as it exposes both the combatant and the source, and is rendered less effective by the unpredictable whims of wind. Dr Price’s inquiry is yet unresolved, prompting us to “[examine] why countries such as the United States have singled out the use of chemical weapons as uniquely intolerable.” Consider Syria: for endless weeks, Syrian children clung to life by eating cats and dogs, but it was the use of chemical weapons that “deeply disturbed” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, prompting him to release a statement.
Alas, there are only so many ways that one can project fear and fascination through gore. Factoring in the ephemeral attention span of the average news consumer, ISIS may have reached the apex of brutality. If indeed they have met the limitations of their imaginative carnage, their decision to use chemical weapons may have been one of convenience. But the Islamic State we’ve witnessed thus far is well-versed in theology, history, militancy, taxation, cartography, cinematography, chemistry. Why stop short of psychology and international relations? It’s unrealistic that they’ve resorted to chemical weapons because they’ve run out of other ideas. They certainly haven’t run out of money. ISIS is surely aware of the taboo surrounding the use of chemical weapons. We can safely assume that they opted for chemical weapons because of the associated taboo. If so, the Islamic State deliberately deviated from a clear-cut international norm solely for the sake of deviating from a clear-cut international norm—which puts to rest the lingering question regarding their ambitions.
All the unresolved debates about whether ISIS wants territory, statehood, legitimacy, or to instill fear, are fundamentally buried. Their ideology expresses a desire for territory. Their name alone is a declaration that they want to be a state. Their use of mustard gas is another clear message: they don’t want external validation. Instead of capitalizing on cinematographic cruelty, they’re capitalizing on their knowledge of Western psychology, using our own norms to tell us that they don’t give a damn whether or not they’re legitimized by our ‘international’ community. ISIS may have goals, but getting our approval definitely isn’t one of them.