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The recent news footage out of Syria showing victims of a chemical attack is haunting. When I first saw it I couldn’t quite comprehend what I was looking at. But after a minute of increasing discomfort I began to grasp the horror of the situation. Victims lying on the ground in puddles of water or in the midst of being flushed with a stream of water, gasping for air and limbs quivering in wide-eyed disbelief and fear of what they were experiencing. Others were unconscious or dead. Rescuers were moving around the victims not knowing what to do beyond rinsing off the bodies. Those handling the water, I’m sure, were grateful to be giving some kind of aid no matter how small.

It is interesting to see how people, myself included, react to this kind of news. I mean, this shouldn’t be happening. After all, the world has international conventions and treaties banning the use of chemical and biological agents in warfare. Humanity has gone to some length to bar the use of war shots designed to release toxic gas or aerosols over anyone anywhere.

When we shudder and express sincere horror at the barbarity of a chemical attack on civilians, along what track is our thinking guided? What kind of decision process might lead us to believe that a sarin attack is a higher level of depravity than a bomb blast? Could it be true that people who release chemical agents are actually guilty of a higher crime than those who send bombs in the direction of a civilian neighborhood or even just 50 caliber bullets?

Explosives are chemicals that unleash kinetic and thermal violence for a few seconds per explosion. Nerve agents move like the wind, breathing lethal aerosols or gas as they flow and leaving who knows how much contaminated … everything … and for how long. Bombs can be aimed, a gas cloud not so much. Bomb violence is much more common than death by acetylcholinesterase inhibition, yet our attention is always drawn to chemical violence.

We have an industry called show business that exploits bomb violence in its entertainment products. And we the viewing audience have become desensitized to the horrific effects of explosions by sheer repetition of highly staged portrayals. Perhaps it is the very novelty of a chemical attack that captures our attention. If you survive a bomb blast, there is a chance that you can be sewn back together again. If you receive an exposure to sarin, well, what do you do to stop the inhibition of an enzyme? Find a dose of atropine if possible from someone who knows it’s in stock somewhere.

The acceptance of explosives but not chemical agents as legitimate weapons of war is at best a false dichotomy. But, we are a world of men and women and weaponized conflict. If a ban on chemical and biological weapons can be negotiated faster than a ban on the use of explosives, then we take what we can get. But let us not get desensitized to high explosives and the horrific tragedies they produce.

Oh, one pet peeve. They’re not ‘explosive devices”, they are bombs. The former may infer skillful and clinical dispassion. The latter suggests dumb, blunt force. The latter seems more to the point.

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