Friday Rant: Sarin Gas and the Arab Spring?

The “Arab Spring” refers to the democratic uprisings that arose independently and spread across the Arab world in 2011. The movement originated in Tunisia in December 2010 and quickly took hold in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. The term was previously used beginning in March 2005 by numerous media commentators to suggest that a spin-off benefit of the invasion of Iraq would be the emergence of Western-friendly Middle East democracies.

A nice thought.

For as long as I’ve been alive, domestic and international power dynamics have cast a shadow over Middle Eastern interactions with the most basic of human rights as we understand them. Yet now we’re led to believe, and for the first time in generations, that Western ideals about basic human rights seem to be merging with Middle East popular sentiment.

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If you didn’t already know, two scientists who were trying to make a pesticide accidentally developed Sarin gas in Germany in 1938. When its potential for chemical warfare was realized during WWII, Germany started mass-producing the gas, but ultimately decided not to use it. Yes, the same country responsible for the Holocaust decided to draw the line here instead. Sarin is odorless, so most victims have no idea what’s going on if they’ve been exposed. Within a minute, people who have been exposed experience chest pain, and after several minutes, begin having difficulty breathing, become nauseated, and start to drool. After a short while, they lose control of their bodily functions and ultimately suffocate in a series of convulsive spasms.

The most recent example of a government’s willingness to actually use the gas is what Saddam Hussein did to the Kurds back in 2004. Highlighting our media’s short-term memory problems, President Bush specifically cited Saddam’s use of Sarin gas against his own people (he killed thousands of innocent men, women and children) as evidence of WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) and justification for U.S. involvement in Iraq, but few of us paid attention. Instead, we had our hearts set on the credibility of separate intelligence that said nukes were buried in the dessert somewhere. We seemed relatively uninterested in the photographs of tens of thousands of civilian Kurdish victims.

Not quite sure how it happened, but the U.S. media has now recognized Sarin gas as a WMD. In fact, and based on that acknowledgement, President Obama made it clear in his statements Wednesday evening that if the Syrian Government uses nerve gas against its own people “there would be certain consequences.” Does anyone think the president was  referring to economic sanctions? Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, recently told a Russian news agency amidst pressure to step down and leave before his own people killed him “that he was made in Syria and meant to live and die in Syria.” However, it’s rather clear in that interview that he seemed less concerned about the civil war in his country and angrier about the criticisms his wife was taking for buying a pair of $7,000 shoes while visiting London.

Does any of this ring a bell?

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Alongside guns, pirated movies and foreign currency, stolen medical supplies are driving the Syrian black market. Not surprisingly, Reminyl, a medication which is used extensively in the management of Alzheimer’s symptoms and has been found to be an effective antidote against Sarin gas (and other nerve gasses) is a market unto itself. The country’s vast and under-funded public health system was already struggling when the protesters took the streets a little over a year ago, so it has no means to prepare for or manage any flavor of pending disaster. The government says that more than half of Syria’s hospitals have now been damaged and a quarter are non-operational.

—Tom Finn

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