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Ban Tear Gas

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"I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes," quoth Winston Churchill, as eloquent and ahead-of-his-time as always (and yet, as always, I fail to feel the love everybody else seems to always respond with).

A major militarization of police, in Feigenbaum's account, came about with the adoption of tear gas by U.S. police departments in the 1920s and 1930s. While we might imagine that guidelines were in place from the start rendering the way that tear gas has so often been used (as an aggressive weapon against trapped crowds and in enclosed spaces, etc.) unethical, Feigenbaum corrects this misunderstanding. Tear gas was designed and promoted as a tool for use against unarmed civilians at close range and in enclosed spaces. Its increased effectiveness in such cases were selling points. This may be worth bearing in mind as the U.S. Army is now training soldiers to kill underground.

The first big test in the glorious history of the use of tear gas as "crowd control" came when the U.S. military attacked World War I veterans and their families in the Bonus Army in Washington, D.C., killing adults and infants, and giving tear gas a new name: the Hoover ration. Far from a point of shame, this murderous attack on veterans "using chemical weapons on their own people" (to echo the oft-used justification for later U.S. "humanitarian" wars) also became a marketing point. The Lake Erie Chemical company used photos of the attack on the Bonus Army in its sales catalogues.

The United States pushed tear gas on the world and sold it to British colonies until the British felt compelled to become their own producers. Turning points in its acceptance for Britain came in India and Palestine. The Amritsar massacre in India created the desire for a gun-like weapon less deadly and more acceptable than the gun, a way, as Feigenbaum writes, to "change how governments looked without any need to change the way things actually were." The dying British Empire picked up the baton and spread tear gas far and wide. Tear gas was part of Israel from before Israel's official creation.

We still today think of tear gas in terms of how it has been marketed, despite what our own lying eyes have shown us. During the Civil Rights and Peace movements of the 1960s, as so many times since, tear gas has not principally been used to disperse dangerous crowds. It has been used to facilitate attacks with other weapons on intentionally trapped and nonviolent crowds. It has been fired into people's houses and churches and meeting halls to chase them out into danger, just as it was used to force people out of caves in Vietnam. It has been used as visual cover for assaults with other weapons. It has been used to create an accepted image of a dangerous crowd, regardless of what the people choking on it are doing or were doing before the tear gassing. Tear gas motivates the wearing of masks, which alters the image and the behavior of protesters. It's been used by SWAT teams in countless cases where knocking on a door would have worked better. It's been used as punishment of protesters and prisoners. It's been used as sport by over-eager police/soldiers.

Activists have resisted, have stopped a shipment from Korea to Bahrain, have stopped a hotel in Oakland, California, from hosting a weapons bazaar. But tear gas use is on the rise around the world. Feigenbaum proposes honest scientific studies. I'm not against that. She proposes clarification of the legal status of tear gas. I'm not against that -- see above. She proposes, rather desperately, that if this weapon is to be deemed a drug, then the same restrictions on conflicts of interest should apply as apply to drugs. I'm not against that. But Feigenbaum's book actually makes a simpler and stronger case: ban tear gas entirely.

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David Swanson is the author of "When the World Outlawed War," "War Is A Lie" and "Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union." He blogs at and and works for the online (more...)
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