Posts Tagged ‘riot control’

JS: So, I want to start off by asking you about a phrase that you use in your latest book. You say that we now have a counterinsurgency warfare model of politics. What do you mean by that?

BH: So, what I mean by that is that basically all of the [ways] in which we govern abroad and at home is now funneled through a particular way of thinking about the world. It’s a mentality. It’s a way of thinking about society that triggers particular kinds of strategies and politics that result from that. And the way of thinking about society is this counterinsurgency paradigm of warfare.

So, counterinsurgency started in the 1950s – well, it started long before then, but it kind of crystallized with Western powers in the 1950s and 60s in Algeria, and Indochina before then, and in Vietnam for the Americans. And it was a particular way of thinking about society, the way society is structured into three groups. With, on the one hand, a small active minority who are the insurgents, and a large passive majority who can be swayed one way or the other, and then a small minority of counterinsurgents.

And that way of thinking has become internalized, second hand. Most, I would say, many in America, but certainly our political leaders are looking at the world through that lens when they look at other countries when they look domestically at their own population, and as a result of that it triggers particular kinds of counterinsurgency practices, really. And three practices particularly that I think when you look at what we’re doing both abroad and at home, you see resonances of them everywhere. The first is the idea of getting total information awareness. That’s always been the key linchpin of counterinsurgency theory, is to get total information on the total population.

And that’s what distinguishes it from just getting good intelligence. It’s that you have to get total intelligence on the total population, not just targeted to people who you suspect, but on the total population. So that you can make a distinction between or you can identify that small group of active insurgents. And you need the information on everyone so that you can make that separation, those fine distinctions between someone who is in that active minority or someone who’s just [in the] you know, passive masses. So that’s the first strategy. The second strategy is then that you have to rid of the active minority that you identified, just that small group of individuals, the insurgents, and you do that through any means possible. And then the third strategy is to win the hearts and minds of the masses, basically.

And I think that starting after 9/11. We saw that way of thinking become the dominant way of governing abroad particularly with the war in Iraq, but then more generally with the use of drones outside of war zones et cetera, use of total information through the NSA in the way in which everything was captured about everyone to the most minor detail. And then also trying to pacify the masses in Iraq through kind of some provision of services or just distribution of cash. But then eventually, when this way of thinking comes back to the United States through different forms of pacification of the masses. Particularly right now, I would say through forms of distraction, really.

JS: How does this counterinsurgency warfare model of politics apply in the Trump era?

BH: The Trump Administration is kind of a crystallization, or it seals the deal really on this on this model of governing. But what I want to emphasize though is that it wasn’t unique to Trump. And so, it goes back and it threaded through the Obama Administration and the Bush Administration.

I’ll come back to that in a second. But when you see it today, what you see predominantly is through Trump’s creation of an internal enemy. So, one of the things that drives counterinsurgency ways of thinking is having an internal enemy that, the internal enemy which is that identifiable small class of the active insurgents.

And I think that Trump [has] really rested his entire way of governing us by creating internal enemies out of whole cloth, really, in this case. It started with the Muslims and Muslim Americans and the idea that we needed a Muslim ban.

But when you listened to the rhetoric that surrounded the Muslim ban, it was this rhetoric about, “Muslims are coming into the country. We got to keep them out and even the ones who are here aren’t patriots. They don’t call the police when they have information. We need a registry for them. We need – there was talk about –

JS: Surveillance on mosques.

BH: – Well, exactly, right. All of the surveillance on the mosques and on all of the Muslim businesses, everywhere. And so, all of that was the creation of a dangerous element in this country, which were the Muslim Americans. And we saw it, of course with Mexican Americans, with talking about Mexicans as criminals, as rapists. You saw it just recently with the whole caravan episode, right. I mean, I think that the caravan episode was an effort to create an internal enemy because it was not only identifying and indexing this real group of individuals, but I think it was, through those groups of individuals, it was pointing at all of the undocumented persons who are in this country and who substantiate that threat.

JS: If that philosophy is as you say, what is the purpose then of identifying these people as you say, as sort of the insurgents?

BH: It’s a coherent strategy that not only kind of identifies the danger and then, of course, tries to eliminate the danger, right. But is doing that in part to pacify the masses to win the support of the masses to bring them on Trump’s side. And of course, that was exactly a strategy for the whole week preceding the midterm elections, right? It was to win the hearts and minds of Americans by targeting this dangerous internal enemy that was coming to the border but that also is in the country, is in the country already. It’s these undocumented residents.

So, it’s got these different prongs to it and in part, what’s always been unique about counterinsurgency theory from the 1950s is that it is focused on the population in this interesting way. So, when you read all of the text by the great counterinsurgency commanders — the French, and British, and some Americans, and texts that were written for and by the RAND Corporation on counterinsurgency — one of the central pillars of this way of thinking is that the battle is over the population. It’s over the masses.

– Jeremy Scahill interviews Bernard Harcourt, “THE COUNTERINSURGENCY PARADIGM: HOW U.S. POLITICS HAVE BECOME PARAMILITARIZED.” The Intercept, November 25, 2018.

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Traditional Canadian complacency, the open society, and a feeling generated by its geography that “it cannot happen here,” help to create the troubled waters in which the revolutionary fish can swim and propagate.—British Institute for the Study of Conflict, September, 1978.

Swallows scatter down across the October quilt of the Petawawa plain and on toward the river and Quebec, where the far hills ghost into rain cloud. In air as close as cobwebs the soldiers of the Canadian Special Service Force in the reanimated Armed Forces wait for the beginning of what they call “erection time”—a solid, stunning minute that turns the land punch-drunk with explosion. When it is over a major’s voice rises eagerly from the loudspeaker, quieter but no less disturbing: “Would you be dead? Would you be critically injured? Would you have the guts to stand up and fight like a man as our infantry came over to kill you?” Only then is there silence, as the questions rise and are lost in the bruised clouds.

This sky will clear in the days to come, but a cloud of suspicion continues to linger over the 3,500-member Special Service Force. Its duties may be as simple as a girl guide’s—Be Prepared— but the calling remains somewhat more sinister than hustling cookies. Formed last year by combining a number of crack Petawawa units with the elite Canadian Airborne Regiment, which was transferred under much controversy from Edmonton, the SSF’s lack of any specific task has led to continuing rumors concerning the military and the possible separation of Quebec. Though the force was planned for more than a decade, its inopportune announcement-just two weeks after the 1976 Parti Québécois victory—and opportune location directly across the river from Quebec have given rise to questions that are also without answers. And it is this lack of a “defined role” more than anything else that has Defence Minister Barney Danson announcing a specific SSF task this week, which insiders hint may be a detailed NATO commitment to the defence of Norway.

But that will hardly stop the rumors. There will still be those who wonder why the force has 2,500 pairs of handcuffs and 17,800 gas masks despite the fact that no Canadian soldier has come under gas attack since 1918. And further questions will arise next month when the first of some 50 special armored vehicles arrives on the Petawawa base—vehicles that are nearly identical to those used by the West German police and others for riot control. Such items are dismissed as basic equipment by the defence department, but Conservative defence critic Allan McKinnon has said they “fit better into the needs of unstable banana republics” than those of Canada. It would have been worse had the previous chief of defence staff, General Jacques Dextraze, had his way and located the 250 French-speaking SSF commandos in Ottawa. Fortunately, Danson fought that decision and won —“I don’t want to turn the place into an armed camp,” he says—otherwise the capital city, which still discourages military uniforms on Friday, shopping day, would have been shackled with camouflaged jungle jackets, calf-high jumping boots and maroon berets—the trademark of the toughest soldiers in the Armed Forces.

The most startling SSF story, however, has remained a secret since the early hours of July 5, 1978, when a plane loaded with British commandos—estimates vary widely between 30 and 190stole out of Petawawa. Fully two months earlier, also in the dead of night, the same commandos had come into the country. And their secret presence here might never have become known but for the one part of the soldiers’ equipment that was out of action over those eight weeks. On July 3, the commandos took over a cottage on Petawawa Point where they invited several women they had met at the isolated Hotel Pontiac. Alcohol and high hopes naturally led to bragging, and the soldiers thoughtlessly let it slip that they were members of the mysterious British SAS—a fact confirmed to Maclean’s last week by the department of national defence.

There are a number of small similarities between the British Special Air Service and the Canadian SSF: their undefined roles, jaunty berets, symbol (a winged dagger) and even motto—the Canadian “Let us dare” and the British “Who Dares, Wins.” But the Canadians are, as one officer put it, merely “lethal boy scouts” when compared to the cream of the British army. So secretive is the SAS that it is not even kiiown how many members there are, though estimates average out to around 700. Photographing them is forbidden even for the official military magazines and the British ministry of defence attitude toward them is simply, “We don’t mention them—ever.”

However, the SAS is known to operate extensively in Northern Ireland where they parachute in at night in small groups and work undercover to disrupt the Irish Republican Army. How they actually operate is guesswork—one exSAS told Maclean’s London bureau that being a member is “automatically a licence to kill”—but their effectiveness is evident. Since their arrival in Ulster deaths and bombings are down from 170 in the first six months of 1976 to 49 in the first six months of 1978.

Obviously, this clear tie with civil war adds further intrigue to the SAS visit to Canada. The only comparable force to the SAS, the United States Rangers, was also quietly here this year in January when some 175 of them trained with the Special Service Force, and more Rangers apparently are due back next January and February.

For those who feed off such information, there is a virtual banquet of paranoia around. The September report from London’s Institute for the Study of Conflict was prepared by Major-General Rowland Mans, who happened to spend three years with the National Defence College in Kingston, Ontario, and it warns with utter clarity of the risks inherent in a disunited Canada. “Just how long the United States would be prepared to stand idly by if the situation worsened would be a matter of nice judgment,” Mans says. Closer to home, the former director-general of the RCMP Security Service, John Starnes, wrote in a 1977 issue of the British magazine, Survival, that “Canada’s internal situation is such that, for the first time since NATO was formed, there is now a potential threat to the security of the North American heartland.” There have also been two puzzling federal appointments this fall: Marcel Cadieux, the former Canadian ambassador to the United States, to advise the RCMP on domestic and international security; and Eldon Black, who has spent the past three years seconded to the department of national defence, to the newly created post of deputy undersecretary of state for security and intelligence in the department of external affairs, which some claim is the beginnings of a new supra-RCMP security force.

Such concern with the internal workings of the country may pre-date both the Parti Québécois victory and the 1970 October Crisis. Ten years ago this week, in response to a Queen’s University student’s question on NATO, newly elected Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau said: “I happen to believe that in a very real sense civilization and culture in North America are more menaced … by internal disorders than by external pressure.” Trudeau emphasized he did not believe the turmoil would be caused by separatists, but he did envisage a North America with “large rebellions and large disturbances of civil order.”

No one has dared suggest the military has actual plans for the invasion of Quebec, but what has been questioned is the real purpose of the Special Service Force, which hardly sets up and breaks down a full, transportable command post on manoeuvres an average of once a day because flies get inside their tents. Defence Minister Danson argues that placing the SSF next door to Quebec “was not a consideration—but I know people are going to read things into it.” The commander of the SSF, burly Brigadier-General Andrew Christie, is even more adamant. ‘Tm a simple, honorable soldier,” Christie says. “And I haven’t got any ulterior motive. We are not SAS. People think something nefarious is going on and we’re involved in clandestine operations. We haven’t got any cards under the table.”

But there is still the issue of secrecy. Christie, who used his influence to kill a Pembroke Observer story on British troops being seen on the nearby base, says no mention was made of the SAS simply because the British requested nothing be said. Barney Danson far more candidly says: “In Canada, where response time is so important, you don’t want to start tipping your hand. We don’t broadcast things.” Retorts Tory McKinnon: “Our government seems suspicious of its own people. It’s as if they can’t be trusted to know what’s going on.” Concerning the actual activities of the British SAS in Canada, Brigadier-General Christie says, “We had very little to do with them.” One senior officer who was there, however, argues that relationships were “very friendly indeed. We were training with them and training them, too.” Very little concrete information is offered concerning the SAS stay here—and numerous Maclean’s calls to a specific SAS soldier, who left his number with a Pembroke woman, failed—but it is believed the British commandos were testing a Bombardier manufactured cross-country motorcycle, climbing in Alberta, underwater testing near Point Pelee in Southwestern Ontario and parachuting in both Edmonton and in an isolated area of Ontario. Bill Beacham, who leases the out-of-the-way, 652-acre Bonnechère Airport near Killaloe from the federal ministry of transport, received a call this spring that the military would be making some use of his facilities. “We never saw them,” says Beacham, who was seldom around the airport for the most part, but an officer in the Canadian SSF claims the SAS were involved in free-fall jumping.

Though the Canadian SSF is described as an “airportable, airdroppable” force, it is wrong to say the Canadian SSF was modelled on the British SAS. When General Dextraze created the Special Service Force in Petawawa—virtually his final act as chief of defence staff—he was reviving a memory that went back to the last World War when the first Special Service Force, a joint U.S.-Canadian force known as The Devil’s Brigade, performed so well in Europe. There was never any stated intention that the force would concern itself with internal security, but there were clear hints in the government’s 1971 white paper, Defence in the ‘70s, that Canada was becoming less concerned with NATO and far more introspective. The white paper spoke of “the threat to society posed by violent revolutionaries” and “the necessity of being able to cope effectively with any future resort to disruption, intimidation and violence as weapons of political action.”

The key to the force, Dextraze believed, would be in moving the Canadian Airborne Regiment from Edmonton to Petawawa, and then adding a third commando unit to the Airborne by bringing the Third Mechanized Commando back from Europe. Defence headquarters was able, amid great protest, to pull the Airborne out of Edmonton but it was unable, thanks to Danson, to put an armed commando in Ottawa. As for the Third Mechanized Commando, it did leave Europe but it has never arrived, having been quietly absorbed into other regiments that needed men. It was this loss of a full commando, sources claim, that bothered Colonel Jacques Painchaud, commander of the Airborne, the most. His outburst in July that Danson should resign for suggesting there was no room for elite troops in the forces was merely the last straw.

The removal of Painchaud which followed was merely one more black mark against the Airborne. Not only was it impossible for the huge Hercules aircraft, which generally carry troops such as the Airborne, to land at Petawawa, but the regiment found there were no jump facilities at the base. When they did parachute, they had to travel by bus to Trenton (three hours away), and then later had to send their parachutes all the way back to Edmonton for repacking. Dextraze himself later admitted the Airborne, as a proper airborne, would be “less effective” in Petawawa. There were also a number of more localized problems: fights in Pembroke; a soldier dead from wood alcohol poisoning; a frozen lake dynamited, now under investigation by provincial authorities.

Today, all that has settled down. With Painchaud gone to headquarters in Ottawa, a minor point of controversy concerns his successor, Colonel Kent Foster, who—as commander of the officially bilingual unit in the Special Service Force—is not classified as bilingual. Brigadier-General Christie, who is bilingual, dismisses this by saying, “He can communicate with his soldiers and they can with him—that’s bilingualism.” Still, the francophone half of the volunteer Airborne is some 90 men short of its full complement of 250. And though Christie has worked hard to attract more French-speaking soldiers to Petawawa—including spending $120,000 a year on a French school — they are slow in coming.

Still, if morale is down in that one area, it is significantly up in the Armed Forces as a whole, thanks to the current $4-billion spending spree. As Admiral Robert Falls, the new chief of defence staff, has put it, the forces cannot attract recruits with “broomsticks instead of rifles,” and the department of national defence—presumably under pressure from the European Economic Community, who will buy Canadian goods in exchange for a larger Canadian commitment to NATO—is making sure the broomsticks are replaced.

A revivified military in such troubled times, however, presents worry to a number of people. In a defence committee meeting on March 10, 1977, General Dextraze—the man who created the SSF—was being quizzed by Edmonton Member of Parliament Steve Paproski on the Airborne’s move to Petawawa. “Does the general include the possibility of a separatist Quebec as one of the challenges to our sovereignty?” Paproski asked. General Dextraze, somewhat miffed at the question, somewhat obtusely replied: “Inasmuch as the military is concerned … one should not ask any questions as to their loyalty at all…I have their loyalty . ..”

There was a moment during the SSF’s recent two-day Exercise Mobile Warrior that was every bit as stunning as the mad minute of “erection time.” At lunch on the first day, one of the visiting officers, Brigadier-General Christopher (Killer) Kirby from the Royal Military College in Kingston, was handed a machete, and a live chicken was produced from a cook’s pot. Then, to the cheers of 230 Canadian military college students, Kirby lopped off the head with a single swipe, leaving the body to stagger pathetically in the spray of its own blood until it fell. The kill was traditional, supposedly to remind the officers that they must be prepared to find their own food during extensive manoeuvres, but the “entertainment” aspect of the act—meat and potatoes were cooking barely 20 yards away—was as unnecessary this year as it had been the year before, when a woman killed a rabbit. Chilling incidents that easily excite the apprehension of the non-military mind.

– Roy MacGregor, “Fighting Back: The Canadian Forces reborn – in from the cold,” Maclean’s. November 6, 1978.

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“A journalist for the Evening Independent wrote that [General Amos] Fries was often “accused of being an absolute militarist anxious to develop a military caste in the United States.” But to those who shared his cause, Fries was an excellent figurehead. A family man, a dedicated soldier, and a talented engineer, Fries was the perfect face of a more modern warfare.

Just as some in Europe argued that chemical weapons were a mark of a civilized society, for General Fries war gases were the ultimate American technology. They were a sign of the troops’ perseverance in World War I and an emblem of industrial modernity, showcasing the intersection of science and war. In an Armistice Day radio speech broadcast in 1924, Fries said, “The extent to which chemistry is used can almost be said today to be a barometer of the civilization of a country.” This was posed as a direct intervention to the international proposal for a ban on chemical weapons: Preparations for the Geneva Convention were well under way. If chemical weapons were banned, Fries knew it would likely mean the end of the CWS [Chemical Warfare Service] — and with it his blossoming postwar career.

To save the CWS from extinction, Fries would need his own army — one that would fight with rhetoric and social capital. Over the autumn of 1919, Fries worked to secure a network of publicists, scientists, and politicians to rally for their cause. They strategically began a full-scale multimedia marketing campaign to promote “war gases for peace time use.”

The trade press provided the first and largest forum for the spread of the tear-gas gospel. In the November 6, 1921, issue of Gas Age Record, Theo M. Knappen profiled Fries, the “dynamic chief” of the Chemical Warfare Service. Knappen wrote that Fries had

given much study to the question of the use of gas and smokes in dealing with mobs as well as with savages, and is firmly convinced that as soon as officers of the law and colonial administrators have familiarized themselves with gas as a means of maintaining order and power there will be such a diminution of violent social disorders and savage uprising as to amount to their disappearance.

In the future, Knappen predicted, when breaking up a demonstration, tear gas “will be the easy way and the best way.”

This early promotional writing struck a careful balance between selling pain and promising harmlessness. Its psychological impact set tear gas apart from bullets: It could demoralize and disperse a crowd without live ammunition. Through sensory torture, tear gas could force people to retreat.

These features gave it novelty value in a market where only the billy club and bullets had previously been available. Officers could disperse a crowd with “a minimum amount of undesirable publicity.” Instead of traces of blood and bruises, tear gas evaporates from the scene, its damage so much less pronounced on the surface of the skin or in the lens of the camera.

But the idea of transforming wartime weapons for peacetime use was not without its critics. In a 1922 letter to the New York Times, US Army veteran A. Reid Moir argued that gas was not only inhumane but “hellish.” He wrote, “Is it humane to lie in excruciating pain, with stomach swollen by the expansion of gas, and with lungs eaten by the deadly vapor to cough up one’s life in an agonizing convulsion?”

Fries’s team had carefully constructed comebacks for such objections. Borrowing loosely from medical statistics, Fries and his team constructed a trio of retorts. War gases, they claimed, killed only one-twelfth the amount of fatalities caused by bullets. Second, only half of disability discharges were from gas. Finally, they argued that there was no medical proof of permanent injury from gas exposure and that serious injuries were very rare.

Numbers could be twisted, but veterans’ testimonies stood in their way. Fries and his team claimed these were exaggerated tales, going so far as to publicly declare that “every imposter is beginning to claim gassing as the reason for his wanting War Sick benefits from the government.” This approach provided the groundwork for the decades of legitimizing less lethal weaponry to come.

Never far from Fries’s lenient use of statistics were his rationalizations of colonial myth as fact. Fries’s writing and speeches are littered with references to white supremacy. In his lecture at the General Staff College, Fries told young soldiers, “The same training that makes for advancement in science, and success in manufacture in peace, gives the control of the body that hold the white man to the ring line no matter what its terrors. A great deal of this comes because the white man has had trained out of him nearly all superstition.” It is this training, for Fries, that sets him apart from the “negro” as well as the “Gurkha and the Moroccan.”

While it would be easy to write Fries off as an anti-communist, racist, and military extremist, the potency of his views arose from his intellect as much as his ignorance. After graduating seventh in his class from West Point in 1898, Fries had entered the academy by acing an exam held by Congressman Binger Herman and went on to impress his superiors and inspire his army subordinates.

In the words of his peers, Fries took a situation in which “the entire civilian population,” as well as the army, stood against his pro-gas campaign and ignited in people an “earnest conviction” that these chemicals were the solution to law enforcement and political control in a time of economic depression. Instead of being seen as a form of physiological and psychological torture, tear gas became rhetorically cemented in much of the public imagination as the humanitarian alternative to live ammunition.

Into the next century, tear gas would become the most widely used less lethal technology. It would transform into part of today’s $1,630,000,000 global industry in less-lethal weapons, with rapidly expanding markets in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. But for all that to unfold, Fries and his compatriots would first need to build up a commercial market for tear gas.

Commercializing Tear Gas
Beyond trade publications, radio speeches, and news features, Fries and his network also staged large-scale product demonstrations. On a balmy July day in 1921, Fries’s old friend and colleague Stephen J. De La Noy brought large supplies of tear gas to a field near downtown Philadelphia. Here he enacted the power of war gases in peacetime by inviting members of the city’s police department to experience its effects. Inviting reporters to record the spectacle of 200 policemen faced with tear gas, De La Noy set the stage for an enticing media story.

A reporter from the New York Times described how the gas “thrice sent [the police] into hasty and wet-eyed retreat.” As the demonstration continued, Philadelphia’s police superintendent selected “a battalion of his huskiest men … with instructions to capture six men who were armed with 150 tear gas bombs.” They fared no better than the first bunch, as “three times they charged, but each time were driven back, weeping violently as they came within range of the charged vapor.” Afterwards, police officials told the Times that the demonstration “undoubtedly proved the value of tear gas in police work.” The gas, they concluded, would likely replace “means hitherto used to subdue mobs and criminals.”

This early demonstration spawned a major national and international campaign for the use of tear gases by law enforcement agencies. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s both the CWS and commercial manufacturers peddled their products to police departments, National Guard, prisons, and private security firms.

This marked a turning point in what is today called the “militarization of the police.” “A few police armed with this weapon could disperse a mob easily and destroy the impact of a mass demonstration,” historian Daniel P. Jones argues. “The dramatic increase in the power of police forces in handling mass disturbances certainly meant a loss of power to any group opposing established order.”

Just as demand needed to be secured, so too did supply. To jump-start the commercial market, Fries donated samples from the CWS to friends — many of them former soldiers — who had become entrepreneurial executives in gas munitions companies.

Perhaps the most outspoken of these was Colonel B. C. Goss, who had worked in the chemical warfare division during World War I. A respected chemist and decorated military man, Goss founded the Lake Erie Chemical Company in Cleveland, Ohio. As general manager of one of the largest companies in this new industry, Goss knew profits would follow perception. He wanted to be the single manufacturer supported by the US military, and sought to use his wartime credentials to make this happen. Goss solicited help from his old CWS buddies and learned the art of twisting scientific testing into advertising copy.

On April 15, 1926, Goss wrote to Fries requesting that he contact the Chicago Superintendent of Police, Morgan A. Collins, “calling his attention to the fact that there are many possible new uses and new chemicals which are admirably suited for use by police departments, with which you would like to have them made acquainted, and that you would appreciate it if he could arrange to have me give a brief talk to the National Convention of Police Chiefs at Chicago.” Fries, uncomfortable with this request but committed to Goss, delayed his reply. Busy preparing for a confidential show at Edgewood Arsenal, Fries “hesitated about writing to the Chicago Chief of Police for fear of possible unfavorable reaction.” He thought it better if the superintendent could telephone him, at which point he could then recommend Goss as a keynote speaker, making the matter appear more casual. “You know my great personal interest in what you are doing,” Fries reassured Goss, “As fast as your products are available, send them along to us for test.”

Within a year, the CWS was providing tests of Lake Erie’s commercial products. The company’s new tear-gas weapons were set to undergo scrutiny at Edgewood Arsenal in the winter of 1927. While Goss was soliciting military endorsements, he wanted to make sure the tests were carried out in a way that provided the best possible outcome. This was no ordinary tear gas. “These Shells are intended to be used, namely, for firing directly in the faces of rioters or mobs, at short range by guards,” Goss wrote, checking in with Fries on February 17, 1927, to recommend that testing be done only with the one-inch Very Pistols instead of the ten-gauge. He promised, “These one-inch shells really have a terrific wallop.”

On February 25, the CWS reported the results of Lake Erie’s “Blind-X Shell” tests. In the opinion of the board, this tear gas was of no use in the outdoors, as Goss had noted in his letter. Yet the gas “would seriously injure if fired in the face of a person under twenty feet,” making it useful for “warehouses or other large rooms.” It recommended that “the charge must be received full in the face or on the body to be effective” and that this gas “will be effective against unarmed individuals, but will only stop a determined and armed individual when red point blank.”

While the Lake Erie “Blind-X Shells” tests were just one in long series of munitions tests to take place at the Arsenal, the results speak toward common misperceptions about how tear gas is handled. Today when canisters are shot at people’s heads or into rooms or cars, it is seen as an accident or against-protocol use. However, these tests show that tear gas was in fact intentionally designed to be shot at point-blank range at people’s faces and bodies and was indeed recommended for use inside buildings and for ring at close proximities.

Second, the test results explicitly stated that the product would be effective against “unarmed individuals.” Again, it was not an anomaly or ethical mistake for police to fire upon unarmed protesters at close range in enclosed spaces. This function was embedded in the very design of these tear-gas weapons. Causing injury to unarmed civilians was an intended outcome of manufacturing these tear-gas shells.

Today, companies claim to manufacture safer and safer forms of tear gas and less lethal weapons. But what does it really mean to improve on the safety of a device designed to cause harm? Is it truly an accident when a product developed to shoot people in the face is used to shoot people in the face? If you follow the hyperlinked trails of less-lethal-weapons patents into the past, you will see the mystifying language of safety and protocols erode. Yet the design and purpose of these technologies remains the same.”

– Anna Feiggenbaum, “The Man Behind The Mask.Jacobin, January 5, 2018. 

Extract from Tear Gas. London: Verso, 2017.

Picture is from a Federal Laboratories, Inc. brochure touting the value of the ‘Federal Gas Riot Gun,’ 1932. LAC RG73. 1-8-1. Vol. 1.

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“Derry — or Londonderry, depending on which side of “the troubles” your sympathies lie — is located just beside the border that cuts the Republic of Ireland from Northern Ireland. As residents will tell you, “The split name says it all.” While road signs inside the Republic will point you toward “Derry,” those in Northern Ireland direct you to “Londonderry.” Both are constantly defaced, leaving visible layers of the city’s contentious past.

The city’s colonial architecture and unique landscape have shaped the political struggles of its inhabitants for more than four centuries. Between 1614 and 1619, King James I erected city walls of thick lime, earth, and local stone to protect (and partition) Protestant settlers from Irish Catholic rebels — financed by the London businessmen of the Irish Society, chartered in 1613 for economic development via colonial expansion in Ireland.

Outside the city walls was the area now known as the Bogside. Originally underwater, this area gained its name when water levels fell and the river became a stream, eventually allowing structures to be built along the bog’s side. The 1700s and 1800s saw impoverished Donegal families move into the area. They are thought to have been in transit, seeking passage out, but limited finances and few job skills left them stuck in the Bog, in poor conditions. Over time, the population grew younger and the area’s infrastructure older. By the mid-1900s, overcrowding was commonplace throughout the Bogside. Three generations of family could be found crammed into two rooms. “Allegations of discrimination in housing allocations,” a 1967 Royal Commission report read, “exist on a wide scale, particularly where a dispersal of the population would result in a changed political base.” 

To keep their seats, members of Parliament tried to secure districts by forcing Irish families to remain in the Bogside. A new housing estate, the Rossville Flats, went up, standing ten stories high and housing 178 families. The building’s red, yellow, and blue décor and flat, railed rooftop made it a pillar amid the area’s sunken landscape. Yet this mega-estate was not enough to solve the housing shortage. Plans for more home construction in other wards encountered challenges from the Unionist Corporation, which continued to block progress and to maintain political and economic control of Derry.

Inspired by struggles overseas, particularly in the United States, Palestine, and South Africa, Bogside tenants and local socialists began to organize, forming, among other groups, the Derry Housing Action Committee. “There was high unemployment, no housing program at all, electoral boundaries which hadn’t been expanded, and there was no such thing as one man one vote — there were all sorts of things wrong,” committee member Dermie McClenaghan recalls.  The organization began by disrupting housing council meetings. A direct-action campaign soon followed in the flurry of worldwide uprisings across the spring of 1968.

On an unusually clear January day in 1969, unarmed civil rights protesters marched under blue skies from Belfast to Derry. At a bridge crossing just outside Derry’s city center, they were met by loyalists carrying rocks and sticks, who beat them as the police watched, doing nothing. This led to rioting in town, followed by retaliation as loyalists smashed Bogside windows and harassed people in their homes. A few months later, on April 19, threats of violence from loyalist militants persuaded civil rights organizers to call off a scheduled march. Civil rights supporters gathered together in the city square to recuperate, but loyalists pelted them with rocks. This time, the police did not stand by doing nothing. Instead, they charged at the civil rights supporters, batons swinging. Back at the City Hotel, the organizers’ hub, panicked residents were rushing in with reports that Bogside boys were being beaten and unlawfully arrested. Then came the news of Sammy Devenney.

A well-respected middle-aged man in the Bogside, Sammy Devenney was uninvolved in political activity; his home was in the pathway of young rioters. Devenney’s eighteen-year-old daughter Ann remembers the anger in the policemen’s voices as they approached the house: “I could see them, banging at the windows with their batons … about five or six of them were at the window and they said, ‘We’ll break the effin’ door down.’” The police stormed in. Ann used her body to shield her younger sister, who was recovering from an appendix operation. Out of the corner of her eye, Ann watched as the police attacked her father. “There were three of them at my daddy with batons … and they kicked him in his stomach and his back and they were just hitting him everywhere.” 

News of the attack spread through the Bogside. Men rushed from the hotel to the Devenney’s home. They found the door kicked in and the sitting room covered in spatters of blood — walls, chair, floor, ceiling, even across the face of Sammy’s four-year-old son.  According to an inquiry report, Devenney was “left lying on the floor with blood pouring from a number of head wounds and with his dentures and spectacles broken.” Less than two months later, the injury killed him. 

The Battle of the Bogside
Shortly after Devenney’s death came the controversial Apprentice Boys march, an annual commemorative march that carried the legacy of British force in Northern Ireland, complete with loyalist songs, “done with the utmost arrogance and bravado to show once again who won the battle many years ago.”  The parade’s drum and fife bands celebrate Protestant settlers’ defeat of an Irish- and Scottish-led siege on the walled city in 1689.

In the lead-up to the march, a Derry Citizens’ Defence Association formed and met with senior figures of the Apprentice Boys to request the parade be rerouted. Their request was refused. Fearing the troubles to come, some older and younger residents sought refuge outside the Bogside. Barricades went up and calls went out for able-bodied men to come and defend the community. They wove piles of wood and wire modeled after the 1968 barricades of Paris’s boulevards. Young community leader and local MP Bernadette Devlin became a central strategist of the street, directing how to build and where to fortify structures.

On the day of the march, Derry was on edge. Loyalists rounded the city walls, taunting Bogsiders and throwing pennies as insulting symbols of poverty. The Bogsiders stood firm at their barricades. By afternoon, the taunting on both sides turned to stone throwing. As evening fell, the police pushed through the Rossville Street barricade trailed by loyalists, looking like the vanguard of the Protestant militants. Loyalists smashed up windows of the towering Rossville estate, breaching the borders of Free Derry. The Bogsiders shortly regained momentum and, in crowds of a thousand strong, drove the loyalists back to the edge of the neighborhood. 

At 11:45 that night, Rossville Street became the first UK site of civilian CS gassing. On advice from the Ministry of Defence, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) sought out CS supplies. “We originally had the CN variety,” explain RUC deputy inspector Shillington, “but we have been advised that CS is the more modern and humane type, which in fact is used by the services.” The RUC quickly telephoned the Minister for Home Affairs. While driving from Belfast the Minister approved the deployment. Supplies of CS were brought in from nearby military storage. According to the RUC, the police responsible for discharging CS in the Bogside had received some, “but not enough,” training. Officers were issued 1.5-inch Verey pistols with a seventy- to eighty-yard range for “defense,” as well as canisters to use when withdrawing. All day August 13, they fired CS intermittently in attempts to disperse the crowds. The gas kept coming until 4:30 in the afternoon on August 14. 

Throughout this bombardment, the Bogsiders retaliated with petrol bombs, stones, and, when available, returned CS cartridges. On the second day of fighting, a group of Bogsiders positioned themselves atop the Rossville Flats. “The high flats was wonderful,” a Bogsider recalls. “But they needed ammunition, so you had to climb eight stories with a bin bag full of stones.”  With men and boys perched defensively on the rooftop, older residents gathered in their homes below, creating milk-bottle-bomb assembly lines, stuffing rags, sugar, flour, and wicks into bottles. The flat roof and periphery railing of the Rossville Flats provided an ideal tower-top defense in this otherwise sunken territory: From this perch, the elevated city walls that daily marked Bogsiders’ social and economic exclusions were for once on lower ground. But the Bogside’s depressed landscape also meant that the air could stagnate, CS hung in the area for hours. At other times the gas traveled, rolling with even the lightest breeze. It eased up into the broken windows of Bogside flats. Police also tried to launch CS atop the Rossville estate in efforts to quell the milk-bottle aerial attacks, but few, if any, of the cartridges made it up those ten stories. Instead, they smashed through the windows of residents’ homes.

One of these windows led into the room where a sixteen-month-old infant, Martin, slept. Hearing his baby cry and cough, Martin’s father ran in. He found the room filled with gas. His son was gasping for breath, tears running down his cheeks. His face had gone pale. Martin’s father felt his child might die without attention.

Derry resident Dr. Raymond McClean found himself baffled by the gas’s effects: “Not only were their eyes inflamed and watery, but many of them weren’t able to breathe to such an extent that several were carried in. I didn’t know what we were dealing with.”  People didn’t know how to respond. Were they better off opening windows and doors to clear it out, or should they shut them tighter to prevent another round getting in? As its inventors were well aware, gas causes as much psychological fear as it does physical pain.

Those in Derry who had any experience of mass gassing associated the CS with wartime bombings. People dug through their cupboards for old gas masks and distributed them around the streets. However, the old masks offered little protection. Their filters no longer worked and gas often got trapped inside them. In fact, many of the filters were made with asbestos, which is harmful to the respiratory system. Even after they were found to be ineffective, children took to the masks like toys. “We knew they didn’t work,” a Bogsider confesses, “but we liked the way they looked.”  These days were full of excitement and fear. “I never slept,” remembers Bernadette Devlin. “For three days and three nights, I was on an adrenaline high.” 

As the gassing went on, coping tips began to trickle in. A US Army veteran who happened to be in Derry at the time offered advice, typed up in a leaflet that circulated around the Bogside streets. French students in the area are also reported to have taught locals how to flush their eyes out with water and hold vinegar-soaked handkerchiefs to their faces. Devlin recalls, “The whole air was saturated … and we’d not a gas mask between us … So we made do with wet blankets, with cotton wool steeped in vinegar, with handkerchiefs soaked in sodium bicarbonate.”  One elderly resident stood out on her stoop with a bottle of brown vinegar. As Bogsiders passed by, she poured a drop onto their outstretched handkerchiefs — which in many cases were not handkerchiefs at all but scraps of fabric, and in one boy’s case, an old pair of ladies’ underpants. 

By the end of the thirty-six hours of CS gassing, a total of fourteen 50-gram grenades and 1,091 cartridges containing 12.5 grams of CS had blanketed the Bogside. This brought a flurry of media attention, with stories like baby Martin’s causing moral panic to ripple through the country. Facing a PR disaster, the Home Office had to act quickly, setting up yet another tribunal to look into Northern Ireland’s most recent disturbances and announcing that a full medical investigation would be conducted into the effects of CS gas in the Bogside.

The Chemical Defense Establishment
Sir Harold Himsworth, a physician in London, was appointed to lead the medical investigation. Himsworth, an advocate of fusing the skills of politicians and scientists, had served as secretary to the Medical Research Council and presided over the Section of Experimental Medicine at the Royal Society of Medicine. In 1952 he was knighted into the Order of Bath for his contributions to civil service. 19 A 1958 New Scientist article profiling Himsworth’s accomplishments called him a man of undoubted authority, “receptive, courteous and decisive.” 

On September 1, 1969, Himsworth and his team arrived in Belfast. Their first stop was the Ministry of Health, where they were briefed on events in Derry by a group of Belfast doctors and government officials. They headed to the GOC Army headquarters for an “off the record” interview with Sir Ian Freeland, director of operations in Northern Ireland, and a briefing on the situation from a brigade commander. This was followed by another press conference in which Himsworth insisted that “there was nothing sinister in the use of CS gas.” Himsworth was “kindly loaned” the Army’s Public Relations Officer, and by the end of the evening the team had additionally secured help from Colonel Millman, who “prof- fered any assistance within his power.” 

On day two, Himsworth’s committee ventured into the Bogside. Picking their way over rubble and through the ruins of barricades, they were quickly surrounded by locals anxious to tell their stories. They questioned a girl clutching a teddy bear as her mother explained the persistence of her sore eyes and lips. Derry doctor Donal McDermott related that “scores of people had suffered from vomiting, diarrhea and nausea.”  A fifty-five-year-old resident reported that her pet budgie had died in its cage; others shared stories of how children’s suffering appeared more acute than adults’. Confused, scared youngsters often rubbed their eyes, worsening the effects. The committee canvassed the area, examining the Rossville Flats and CS cartridges saved by the Citizens’ Association. Himsworth expressed skepticism over media claims that there had been sixty to a hundred cases of gastroenteritis and diarrhea. If this were true, he argued, it should have been officially classified as a major crisis; illness at this scale required government notification. What he didn’t see was that, in the middle of a riot, people’s fears of arrest and the frenzy of the commotion bar many from seeking hospital treatment. Even under normal conditions, people in impoverished areas are reluctant to go to hospitals or doctors for digestive problems, preferring to tough it out or use home remedies, but in a city divided along religious, political, and economic lines, seeking formal medical care was even more contentious. This city of two names was also a city of two hospitals: The nearest was staffed by Unionist doctors, and many Bogside residents avoided it, opting instead to cross the border into Ireland and receive treatment there.

Most medical treatment during the Battle of Bogside happened in the Candy Corner shop at the top of Westland Street. Off-duty nurses and medics set up a treatment post inside the store. Dr. Raymond McClean’s wife Sheila drove over the bridge to the hospital for antiseptics, dressings, and suturing supplies. The Candy Corner first treated casualties from stone throwing and street fights. After the gassing began, the makeshift medical staff treated lacerations, concussions, and head injuries from CS cartridges, including a young man whose nose was nearly severed off his face. They worked without adequate space or equipment. As gas casualties poured in, volunteer nurse Attracta Bradley recalls, “We really were at a loss on what way to treat it because we’d really been taught basic first aid. We’d never been taught how to manage tear gas.” The staff spent over twenty-four sleepless hours tending the CS victims. Then tear gas crept into the Candy Corner as the police advanced, forcing the medical team to relocate. Supplies in hand, they carried the sick up the hill to Creggan, where they re-established the first-aid center in the local Boys’ Club until the gassing finally ceased. 

Amid these riotous conditions it is difficult to imagine how standard hospital notification procedures would be carried out. But Himsworth, a man of record, sought statistics. He was after authorized laboratory reports, not regular people’s tales of gassed babies or dead budgies. Throughout his diary of the visit, he records residents’ stories of their experiences and effects with suspicion and occasionally derision. For example, a physician at Altnagelvin hospital reported the case of chronic asthmatic Charles Coyle, age fifty. The committee recorded in their notes that the man:

had been getting steadily worse for some years. His story (typically Irish) was that on the night of 12 August he was on the city wall when CS gas was dropped some two or three hundred yards in front of him—he walked up to it and sniffed it. Feeling ill he went into the O’Range Hall where we stayed for a while. He then came out and got another whiff of the gas but walked half-a-mile home. For four days afterward he stayed at home, but didn’t see a doctor.

While it is unclear whether it was Himsworth, his secretary, or the doctor who found this case to be “typically Irish,” the comment’s documentation in a formal log signifies the disposition of the “independent” British investigation toward the civilians whose health and well-being they were documenting. Such prejudices matter. Himsworth’s rationalist approach and determination to keep questions of human conditions apart from scientific observations significantly shaped his findings. While personal details like Martin’s father’s fear that his infant might die were quickly dismissed, here the personal was placed in support of a medical description. If Himsworth’s observations had been explicitly acknowledged as military research, these biases could be traced to their root, making accountability easier to map. The problem lies in the claim that this enquiry was independent. The rhetoric and “off the record” meetings masked the team’s deeper connections to the government and military from public view. Their medical research was financed and authorized by the Home Office; the majority of guidance coming in on the ground in Derry was supplied by the military and police. Later, the Ministry of Defence’s Chemical Weapons branch became the key source of experimental data. This kind of scientific bias leads to partial pictures: People’s experiences get cut up and rearranged into government-sanctioned shapes. As with the chemists of World War I, who perfected their poisons to gain prestige, when clinical tasks trump human accountability, atrocity — however unintentional — often follows.

Himsworth’s committee traveled directly from Northern Ireland to Porton Down, the MoD’s chemical testing facility. Nestled within sixteen acres of countryside, Porton Down was a top-secret station for military research and weapons development, running throughout World War II and the Cold War period and continues to be so in the present day. An estimated twenty thousand military “volunteers” went through the facility, many as subjects in experiments on chemical agents. Told that the military was testing treatments for common colds, volunteers were guaranteed safety and given shillings for participation. As Rob Evans uncovered in researching his book Gassed, “They wanted to get away for any type of break, just anything … But sadly very few actually knew what Porton Down was, or what they were letting themselves in for.”

Some of the chemical agents tested on these young men and women included the nerve agent sarin, different mustard gases, and lachrymators — tear gases — as well as other kinds of chemicals, like smoke bombs and dyes. There were skin tests, oral tests, tests of irritants on the eyes, behavioral tests, and gas-chamber tests, among others. “It was hideous,” according to retired officer Patrick Mercer, “a hutted camp, where it seemed to do nothing but rain. There were a series of bunkers to which you were thrust from time to time to be gassed with CS and to go through ghastly exercises underground wearing a gas mask.”  Between 1941 and 1985, approximately 8,850 tear gas tests, mostly of CN, CS, and CR agents, were conducted on more than 2,800 veterans.  The development of CS as a riot-control agent began in the 1950s and increased in the 1960s as unrest in Northern Ireland grew.

When Himsworth arrived at Porton Down in 1969, the facility was known as the Chemical Defence Experimental Establishment, shortened the following year to the Chemical Defence Establishment (CDE). This secretive testing site has undergone eight name changes and numerous structural re-organizations in its near-century of operation. Today it is called the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. In the late 1990s, a large-scale probe was launched into the human experiments at Porton Down. Veteran Gordon Bell, supported by others, initiated the enquiry. Between 1959 and 1960 Mr. Bell had undergone three tests, including one with sarin and another with CS. His multiple requests for information regarding his records were refused. Determined to hold the government accountable, Bell continued to pressure law enforcement and government authorities to hold a formal investigation.

At a late-night House of Commons session in 1998, South Sutherland MP Chris Mullin raised Bell’s concerns before the Minister for the Armed Forces. “Not for the first time in matters of this nature, there is a feeling that the Ministry of Defence is being economical with the truth,” Mullin said. Citing similar claims brought forth to the House by Bournemouth veterans in 1996, Mullin insisted that Bell was not alone in his recollection of the experiments at Porton Down. This was not a case of retrospective blame, he argued. Rather, it suggested an intentional cover-up:

Many of those experiments and the manner in which they were conducted would have raised concern even by the standards of the 1950s—more so, in fact, as the experiments carried out by the Nazis that prompted the Nuremberg code were fresh in the public mind in the 1950s … I put it to the Minister [for the Armed Forces] that those who were the subject of the experiments at Porton Down were not told the truth precisely because it would have been unacceptable even by the standards of the time.

But in 1969, when Himsworth visited, all of this had yet to be exposed; the chemical testing facility was running business as usual, operating on what Grimley Evans describes as “wartime ethics.” In an atmosphere of perceived imminent attack, utility reigns supreme and military secrecy often overrides informed consent. On top of this, Porton Down was run by a mixed civilian and military staff. This created levels of secrecy and security clearance that made it difficult to practice any one protocol. It was hard to determine fault when things went wrong.  Such claims to layers of organizational complexity tend to evaporate accountability in what Linsey McGoey has called “strategic ignorances.”  The atrocity at Porton Down was not only the procedure, but the value system. What — and who — made it an issue of scientific importance to directly apply known poisons to people’s skin, lungs, and eyeballs without consent?

The results of the Porton Down experiments played a key role in the Himsworth Committee’s report. Between October 1969 and March 1971, Sir Himsworth and his team held a series of meetings at Whitehall in which they shared scientific findings, correspondence with medical professionals, and laboratory evidence. Their priorities included finding evidence of CS’s effects on the young, the elderly, and pregnant women, as well as people with previous illness. Himsworth also asked the committee to investigate cases of chemical manufacturers repeatedly exposed to CS and to gather “full details of the Vietnam experience.” 

Conspicuously absent from the agenda was any reference to the United States’ widespread use of CS and other tear gases to combat civil protests. Himsworth was silent on the crushed labor strikes, civil rights struggles, antiwar protests, and even the helicopters that sprayed CS over thousands on the Berkeley campus just four months before the team’s first meeting, all of which were heavily publicized in the United States and discussed at UN meetings on the Geneva Protocol. The Geneva Protocol bans the use of chemical and bacteriological weapons in war. The United Kingdom and the other European Allies had signed onto the agreement in 1925. While the United States was instrumental in bringing the protocol forward and President Roosevelt made appeals to it during World War II, the United States did not ratify it until modifications were made in 1975. This position garnered international attention during its widespread use of chemical weapons in Vietnam. In 1966, the Hungarian delegation, backed by other Eastern European nations, put the matter back on the UN’s agenda. “The hollow pretexts given for using riot-control gases in Vietnam,” the Hungarians argued, “have been rejected by world public opinion and by the international scientific community, including scholars in the United States itself.” Appealing to the Geneva Protocol, Hungary called for the use of chemical weapons to constitute an international war crime.  One prominent US scholar who rejected the use of riot-control agents in Vietnam was Nobel laureate and Harvard professor George Wald, who attested that “under combat conditions, tear gas is part of a thoroughly lethal operation.” But the US delegation continued to argue that the Geneva Protocol should not prohibit riot-control agents, a position that garnered UK support.

Tear Gas as a Drug
Amid increasing counterinsurgency efforts in Northern Ireland and in light of these international debates, in February 1970 British foreign secretary Michael Stewart drew on the Himsworth Committee’s interim report to announce a new stance: “CS smoke is considered to be not significantly harmful to man in other than wholly exceptional circumstances; and we regard CS and other such gases accordingly as being outside the scope of the Geneva Protocol.”  This announcement led to uproar from members of Parliament, NGOs, antiwar groups, and UN delegates.

In June 1970 Sir Alec Douglas-Home took over as Foreign Secretary. While he had reservations over this policy change, the MoD was adamant that CS fell outside the Protocol’s restrictions, which deal with substances that were “significantly harmful or deleterious to man — an argument which it rejected.”  In addition, if the government were to deem CS deplorable in war, it would be difficult to justify its domestic use as a means of crowd control. The MoD appealed to the “smoke’s” pacifying powers: “CS has saved innocent lives and gave the police and army a much more humane option than batons, bayonets and bullets or bombs.”  This position would soon be validated by the Himsworth Committee, which posited that the effects of CS should be considered “from a standpoint more akin to that from which a drug is regarded than from that from which we regard a weapon.” This framing worked to partition the team’s enquiry from concurrent debates over international law happening in Parliament; it was crucial that the public not be led to translate the ethics of combat to the domestic “troubles” in Northern Ireland. These guidelines, given by the Home Office, delineated a particular relationship between humans and tear gas. It asked the scientists to find a way to calculate safety, to measure it in doses. With drug tests in mind, the Himsworth Committee proceeded to consider CS’s effects with the ultimate aim of authorizing its use.

The government, like a drug company trying to push its product to the market by funding its own research, had employed Himsworth and his team as stakeholders; its members had vested interests in the research and development of this chemical agent. Dr. John Barnes, the committee’s technical advisor, worked in a research capacity for the Ministry of Defence throughout his time on the independent enquiry team. At the very first committee meeting Dr. Barnes raised the issue, “to be quite sure that it was appreciated that he was the Chairman of the Biology Advisory Committee of the Chemical Defence Advisory Board.” Sir Himsworth promptly reassured him: “The Committee is an independent body charged to make an independent investigation and to report to the Home Secretary.” The committee members were “to have no special relations with any other advisory bodies.” Requests for evidence should be made in the same way, whether from government departments or private individuals.  Moving between abstract independence and practical allegiance, Himsworth’s attempts to remain above bias were questioned by his own team.

In the final committee report, the team drew attention to some of the problems arising from their task: What did it in fact mean to consider a weapon as a drug? How could safety be measured medically? Investigating CS as a “druglike” substance required two key considerations. First, they had to determine what distinguished a safe dose from a dangerous dose; and to ask whether the difference was great enough that the drug could be certified as safe. Second, they had to examine the side effects. Were they too great to outweigh the drug’s benefits?, “CS is usually used not in relation to a particular single individual, but in relation to a population,” they noted; during a civil disturbance, it is not only “healthy young adults” who face gassing. CS can affect anyone in the vicinity, including “children, the old, pregnant women and the ill, who are exposed inadvertently.” Determining safety and risk in these circumstances, the committee pointed out, was both medical and political.

Unlike most drugs, CS is not administered in a controlled oral or topical dose. It is no antibiotic tablet or eczema cream. Deployed as a fog or smoke, CS consists of tiny droplets that are absorbed through the skin and inhaled through the lungs. Its effects vary with weather conditions, topology, spatial structures, pre-existing medical conditions, and personal tolerance levels. These factors make it difficult to determine the exact level of a “dangerous dose.” But “by Command of her Majesty,” Himsworth and his team accomplished just this.

The Himsworth Report
The committee presented clinical, experimental, and observed evidence, doing their best to bracket off any “element of emotion” from their presentation of findings. Extrapolating from animal experiments, since human experience could not be trusted, the Himsworth Committee listed and refuted side effects, detailed dangerous doses, and offered operational guidance. In the end, CS got its clearance for use during civil disturbances. It was labeled safe for the young and old, as well as pregnant women; some warning was given that it should be used with strict guidance in enclosed locations.

Derry doctor Raymond McClean, a prominent figure in Derry’s nascent civil rights struggles who went on to become mayor, met Himsworth during the committee’s whirlwind tour of the Bogside. They dined at the Broomhill Hotel, accompanied by McClean’s wife Sheila, a local art teacher, and Himsworth’s secretary, Major Snowden. Sheila spoke with Himsworth at length about literature and politics. While Raymond found Himsworth affable, he sensed that Himsworth was a “grey areas man” — a feeling that later proved all too true.

McClean wrote to Sir Himsworth, “I have discussed your taste in literature with my wife Sheila on many occasions since our last meeting. Apparently she has some understanding of how an intelligent, educated, sensitive person can be interested in injustice and brutality only on some higher plane. I must admit that this understanding has not been given to me.” The two men corresponded during the production of the committee’s report. At the Candy Corner medical station, McClean had treated CS patients with epilepsy who were “carried into the medical centers in a state of collapse and rigor.” Himsworth’s team declined to look into CS’s effects on epilepsy, concluding instead that “during the period of excitement [epilepsy patients] may have omitted to take their drugs.” Furious, McClean wrote in haste to the British Medical Journal objecting that this claim had no scientific merit. Privately, he wrote to Himsworth, “I was ashamed for you when I read the committee’s comments on epilepsy.” He also challenged the report’s evaluation of CS as a drug, questioning how the political situation in Northern Ireland could be reduced to a set of side effects and insubstantial sociological factors. Drawing on his own experiences of increasingly violent repression and internment in Northern Ireland, McClean spread word that “the real purpose of this report must remain in serious question.” 

McClean was far from alone in his objections. Two years before the final report was released, the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science (BSSRS) preemptively criticized the enquiry, arguing that it was important for the committee to look beyond the clinical and include social scientists’ perspectives “if it is to make the necessary inquiries about the effects of the use of CS gas — not merely on the eyes and lungs of those who consulted doctors, but on the whole group of people affected.” 45 In 1970, the magazine New Society published a very different picture of the effects of gas in Derry. Unlike Himsworth’s team, the BSSRS sought to understand the informal medical care provided during the Battle of the Bogside. While for Himsworth Derry residents’ lack of hospitalizations was evidence that few people needed medical care, the BSSRS researchers recognized that at times “there were too many causalities to count” seeking treatment at makeshift first-aid stations that had to be repeatedly cleared from CS contamination. 

Himsworth had rejected the prospect of carrying out an epidemiological investigation like that proposed by the BSSRS, arguing that widespread questioning “would certainly cause alarm and the retrospective replies obtained would be of very dubious value.” He arranged for BSSRS representatives to give evidence at a committee meeting, but ultimately dismissed their reports as unsubstantiated sociology.  Indeed, over the course of the investigation Himsworth created doubt around a number of findings and observations, including those of Professor Francis Kahn from the Sorbonne. In 1966 and 1967 Kahn had traveled to Vietnam to investigate the effects of chemical gases on the civilian population and brought back samples from Tay-Ninh that he had collected from an 801b barrel “with a mask and many troubles.” During his travels Kahn had been shown footage and told anecdotes by Vietnamese doctors and local people of deaths resulting from tear gas. CS grenades were being fired into shelters and tunnels where Vietnamese families were hiding.

While the US Army claimed to be using only CS, many questioned that this chemical agent alone could cause death. The final Himsworth report also raised doubts, noting that Professor Kahn “had no first hand contact with cases there” and that death by asphyxiation could not be directly faulted to CS. The committee suggested that the Vietnamese people’s behavior had led to their own deaths: burrowing into makeshift bomb shelters in efforts to escape the poisons shot from the sky, some ended up starved of oxygen while hiding inside. 

In addition to his research in Vietnam, Kahn also investigated the use of CN and CS (called CB in France) during the May 1968 uprisings in Paris. Kahn was a member of the Union of University Teachers and stood on the front lines during the student protests. From within the crowd, he observed cases of panic, eye lesions, and unconsciousness. Professor Kahn also shared the case of Madame Macina, an older woman with a respiratory condition who had died after being caught up in clouds of tear gas. No autopsy was done and she was legally declared to have died of natural causes. Unsatisfied, Professor Kahn attempted to discover more; however, as he explained in a letter to Himsworth, “when we tried to go on in the study of this case, we faced problems since the witnesses, including her doctor, the drivers of the ambulance and her own family did refuse to give us further details.” The professor presumed this was because of “hard pressure from the police.” 

The Himsworth Report noted this case, but made no mention of Kahn’s comments on the difficulties of obtaining evidence:

The subject was an elderly woman who was known to suffer from a chronic illness that caused shortness of breath. Despite this, she took an active part in the disturbances of the 6th May … Toward the end of the day she got increasingly breathless and in the evening become so ill that she sent to hospital. She was dead on arrival … in view of her previous illness, death was certified as due to natural causes. Clearly the medical man concerned felt justified in believing that her death was related to her pre-existing condition. In the absence of further evidence, we can only accept this. 

Sterilizing the enquiry process from emotion, politics, and personal experience helped Himsworth construct a tidy report, but the scientific method alone could not be trusted to sift through all the laboratory results. The team needed to make sure the press did not get hold of any unappealing experimental data before the publication of the report. During the committee’s eighth, ninth, and tenth meetings, a number of experiments arose showing more severe effects of CS. With mounting pressure to deliver the final report, the chairman had to decide how to handle these unpublished experiments, which became known as the Porton Papers. The committee agreed that the Porton Papers would not be sent out for publication in scientific journals until three to six months after the report was published, as the papers “could be used by hostile parties to confuse the lay public.” 

Ultimately, the Himsworth Report trumpeted experimental results over medical observations and continually down- played the significance of personal testimony. Personal details on patients were only included when it served to mitigate the ill effects of CS, as in the case of Madame Macina, Vietnamese peasants, and the Bogside father of baby Martin. Likewise, social scientists’ claims that CS effects must be considered in their economic and political context were bracketed at the very outset from debate. Suggestions that the psychological conditions of riot situations could have physiological impacts were brought up in the final report, only to be separated out from the “real effects” of CS. The report treated bodily reactions as side effects; as if they were the result of personal dysfunctions or rare allergies to an everyday product, rather than human bodies responding to poisoned air.

Domestically, the Himsworth Report’s stamp of approval freed Britain to further develop more deadly riot-control agents, counterterrorism technologies, and counterinsurgency tactics — using Northern Ireland as a testing ground. Throughout the 1970s, tensions, between the military, police, loyalists, and Irish protesters escalated. CS gas became so commonplace that families lined their front doors with towels to stop it from seeping in. It was frequently fired at close range and into enclosed spaces. On one occasion police fired CS into a bus full of people.  Political prisoners were frequently gassed, with rights groups claiming that the stronger lachrymatory agent CR was sprayed during the Long Kesh riots in 1974, causing lesions and permanent scarring. In many ways the birthplace of modern notions of “nonlethal” weapons, Northern Ireland was also home to the first use of rubber-coated metal bullets. The year 1978 brought the use of plastic baton rounds (also called plastic bullets), which were made available to police and soldiers. During the 1981 political prisoners’ hunger strike 29,601 rounds were fired at demonstrators, resulting in seven deaths. Eight years later the official death toll from this “nonlethal” technology reached seventeen. Now deployed around the world, different kinds of impact munitions, commonly referred to as rubber bullets, are frequently fired through clouds of tear gas.

The Himsworth Report continues to be used by governments around the world to justify the use of tear gas. In 1989 the US State Department invoked it to defend exporting $6.5 million worth of tear gas guns, grenades, launchers, and launching cartridges to Israel. This tear gas was thrown into Palestinian houses, clinics, schools, hospitals and mosques, often in residential areas, by IDF forces in the Occupied Territories. Human rights groups recorded up to forty deaths resulting from tear gas, as well as thousands of cases of illness. The State Department, facing criticism, cited the Himsworth finding that “the margin of safety in the use of CS gas is wide” and concluded that suspending tear gas shipments “would be inconsistent with US efforts to encourage the use of restraint by Israel and could work to the disadvantage of the Palestinian population in the Occupied Territories.” 

In 1993, the Himsworth Report surfaced again, making its way into hearings on the FBI and military siege of the Branch Davidian religious complex in Waco, Texas, which left dozens dead. Congressman Sonny Bono stared down his gold-rimmed glasses at Attorney General Janet Reno: “Your decision to approve of gassing the Davidians with the CS gas was based on Dr. Salem’s advice on the report prepared by the British research team?” “I believe it’s referred to as the Himsworth report,” Reno replied.  After hours of intensive scrutiny by the congressional committee. Reno, who had been a chemistry major at Cornell University, sanctioned the deployment of CS gas over a forty-eight-hour period in efforts to end a fifty-one-day standoff between the religious sect and law enforcement.

Strategists hoped the gas would cause leader David Koresh and his followers, who had twenty-two children among them, to exit the compound. But instead of clearing people out, the gas brought returned gunfire. The women and children barricaded themselves even deeper inside. Within hours, the entire structure went up in flames. Seventy-six people were later found dead inside.  The effects of CS gas on those who died at Waco were obscured by the flames; autopsy reports listed the cause of death in most cases as asphyxiation or falling debris. The ethical questions surrounding the FBI’s use of CS against protocol were briefly raised by media critics and members of the congressional committee, but in the end were largely eclipsed by the fire in the public memory.

Despite a long trail of reports of CS harms that came throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, it was Himsworth’s report that remained the technical trump card. Every major inquest or “independent enquiry” conducted in the decades to follow re-established its prominence through processes of expert testimony and citation. These official inquiries worked to maintain dominant structures of scientific knowledge production, affirming the central authority of military research centers and handpicked, government-approved scientific experts. In this system of scientific capital, researchers are encouraged to exchange stamps of safety for professional prestige. With government safety clearances in place, it was time to roll out tear gas in England.”


Anna Feigenbaum, “The Science of Making CS Gas “Safe”,” Verso blog. November 15, 2017. Extract from Tear Gas. London: Verso, 2017.

Top photograph is: 

Hanns-Jörg Anders, commissioned by Stern, 1969.  World Press Photo of the Year.

Bottom photo is: Testing at Porton Down, 1960s-70s. From The History of Biochemical Warfare Research and Human Experimentation, 1945 – 1989 website

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