Earlier this week, CBS “60 Minutes” presented an in-depth report on the 2013 sarin gas attacks in Syria. Be sure to watch the report here. In the early morning of August 21, 2013, civilians residing in disputed areas of the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus were attacked with rockets containing the chemical weapon sarin gas. U.S. intelligence estimated that 1,429 civilians were killed in the attack, including 426 children. The U.N. Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon has called the attack a “crime against humanity.”
Sarin gas is a man-made chemical weapon that was created in the 1930’s by Nazi scientists. It acts as a nerve agent, constantly stimulating glands and muscles causing seizures and convulsions. Death by sarin gas usually results from respiratory system paralysis leading to loss of oxygen to the brain. Chemical weapons such as sarin gas are among the most inhumane means of warfare. In 1997, the production, stockpiling, and use of sarin gas and other chemical weapons was outlawed in the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction (Chemical Weapons Convention), and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was created to ensure the implementation of the convention. The organization was in Syria investigating other alleged chemical attacks at the time of the attack outside of Damascus.
The use of chemical weapons is not a new phenomenon. Yesterday, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons commemorated the 100th anniversary of the first large-scale use of poison gas which occurred during World War I, in a ceremony paying tribute to all victims of chemical weapons. On April 22, 1915, Germany used chlorine gas to attack soldiers in the trenches near Ypres, Belgium. Chlorine gas is heavier than air, so it sunk into the trenches forcing the soldiers to emerge into enemy fire to avoid its effects. Although these weapons are now illegal their use has not been entirely eliminated, as evidenced by the sarin gas attacks in Syria.
The decision by CBS to show video of this attack is monumental for raising awareness of the devastating effects of chemical weapons. “60 Minutes” correspondent Scott Pelley correctly explained that “you can read about [this chemical weapons attack] all day, but if you don’t see it, I don’t believe the impact truly hits you.” Hopefully with the increased availability of cell phones with camera and video recording capabilities, attacks such as this one will continue to be documented and their existence made known so the world may punish those responsible and prevent future atrocities.