The drums of war seem to be getting louder. In August 2012 President Obama said “ a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around …that’s a red line for us.” The crossing of the red line would then imply that the US should become involved in the two year old Syrian civil war. So far the evidence seems limited and far from conclusive.
If nothing else we should be wary of weak evidence of the possession or use of weapons of mass destruction as justification for going to war. So lets examine what we do know. What we have to go on is soil samples that were smuggled out of Syria. Laboratory analysis of the samples suggested traces of a nerve gas known as Sarin. Actually because Sarin is quite reactive the only thing to be detected would be hydrolysis products due to the reaction with water in the air or soil. Also there was hearsay evidence of witnesses claiming to have seen victims of exposure to Sarin.
Sarin is a very toxic nerve agent. It actually isn’t a gas but rather a liquid designed to be aerosolized, meaning sprayed as a fine mist. Contact with bare skin or especially inhalation causes a number of symptoms ranging from heavy salivation, profuse sweating, muscle cramps, convulsions and death resulting from respiratory paralysis. Not pretty, huh?
Sarin is a member of a class of poisons known as Acetyl Choline Esterase Inhibitors. Other substances that have the same effect, but lower toxicity are a number of insecticides. Even the relatively safe house and garden type insecticides kill insects by the same mechanism. So how do they work?
Imagine you want to wiggle your big toe. A message travels from your brain via several nerves “talking” to each other to get the signal all the way to your toe. For the signal to get from one nerve to the next requires the opening and then closing of a “gate.” The gate opening allows the signal and the closing stops the signal. If the gate doesn’t close your toe would continue to wiggle. That is the way Sarin and other Acetyl Choline Esterase Inhibitors work. They keep the gate open. A small stimulation of a nerve can’t be turned off. The affected tissue is overstimulated. When the affected tissue is the chest muscles, your breathing is disrupted.
Now back to the weapons of mass destruction. Recall the President Obama said “bunches of” WMDs. The evidence so far for the presence or use is inconclusive. We don’t know who used them if they were used at all. We don’t know how much was used but the only evidence suggests limited rather than widespread use. We don’t know where they were used or how many people were affected. This is not the evidence we need to spend our blood and treasure yet again in the middle east.