See Marijn Nieuwenhuis's most recent contribution to Society & Space: Atmospheric governance: Gassing as law for the protection and killing of life


The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk argues in his book Terror from the Air (2009) that twentieth-century warfare was characterized by an attack on the ecological environment of the enemy. His analysis predominantly focuses on the effects of an intentional changing of the natural environment with the objective of making the life of the enemy impossible. This commentary borrows Sloterdijk's framework to address shortcomings and ambiguities in international law concerning chemical weapons, which have given states free reign to terrorize atmospherically their own populations.

A discussion on the use of chemicals for law enforcement purposes has especially become timely in light of the recent events in Turkey. A Turkish security official recently stated that the Turkish police in “the first three days of riots in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and other big cities... consumed an amount of tear gas and pepper spray equivalent to its annual consumption.” I argue that the ongoing struggle over Gezi Park and other spaces around Turkey (and beyond) are no longer primarily being fought on the ground. They are instead increasingly taking place in the air.

Neo-liberalism and State Terror

The use of teargas and other chemical agents for “law enforcement” purposes is worldwide on the increase. This state-led form of chemical engagement, which Sloterdijk appropriately defines as “atmoterrorism,” is in the Turkish case argued to be democratically legitimized. The Turkish Prime Minister repeatedly reminds Turkey (and the world at large) of his mandate to terrorize the air to maintain and secure the territory underneath.

Erdoğan and other high-ranked government officials have throughout the protests rhetorically described the unwanted infiltrators of the state's territory as “traitors,” “extremists,” and “terrorists.” The authority from which the AKP takes its normative stance is the same democratic legitimacy from which it also justifies its dissemination of terror in the air. The use of tear gas is, in other words, both authorized and legitimized on democratic merits. Those occupying the territory are said to be “undemocratic” and should, therefore, be removed to consolidate and further the authoritarian/ liberal democratic (encircle the appropriate) nature of the state and its interest.

The market-driven interest of the state should by now be well known. Erdoğan envisages transforming Gezi Park into a commercial center designed in a post-modern neo-Ottoman architectural style. Taksim Square is not only of historically national importance but its central location also means that it is situated on very expensive land. Converting it into a place of consumable nationalism was intended to bolster economic growth and was thought to help the AKP to consolidate and strengthen its legitimacy. Taksim Square is not the only space in which an increasingly authoritarian manner is being reproduced in pursuit of what David Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession.” Erdoğan’s redesigning of the urban environment is, in fact, characterized by the production of spaces that are not being produced with the residents but increasingly against them. Public and open spaces are increasingly rare while real estate prices continue to bubble.

The Turkish state wishes to transform the square for the objective of capital accumulation. Resistance against this objective is, therefore, not only considered to be a threat to the capitalist logic from which the state draws its legitimacy, but also opens the door to potentially alternative uses of space which automatically challenge the existing modes of social relations. The suppression of alternative uses of space is, in other words, considered to be essential for the AKP. If “direct hits” to the protestor are not sufficient to prevent this from happening, then the state “is forced to make his continued existence impossible by his direct immersion in an unlivable milieu for a sufficiently long period of time” (Sloterdijk, 2009: 16). The protesters’ effective reliance on gas masks provides (temporary) relief from the state’s atmospheric terror, but the state then responded with a threat to ban gas masks. War is, in other words, increasingly being fought for, but not on the ground. It is instead more and more being fought in the air.

Legal Discrepancies

The use of tear gas blurs the distinction between war and peace. Its composition consists of chemicals that are solid at room temperature. These chemicals need, therefore, to be mixed with other chemicals before they can be airborne. Its use in warfare situations has, after its deployment in WWI internationally, been banned in the international Geneva Protocol of 1925 (which the US did not ratify until after the Vietnam War) and again in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 1993. The CWC is organized by the “Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapon” (OPCW) which oversees the implementation of the CWC treaties.

The use of tear gas does in the CWC, however, not apply to domestic law enforcement. The omission of a law protecting civilians from their own governments has throughout the twentieth century sanctioned the unrestricted deployment of tear gas to quell domestic protests and demonstrations. The popularization of tear gas for domestic purposes stems from the 1960s and 1970s when it served as an addition to police batons and firearms in the violent suppression of civil rights and anti-war protests. American law enforcement agencies took advantage of the vast sums of money poured into the military’s R&D, which at the time had already long experimented with different forms of gas for warfare purposes. There exists, indeed, a long and close relationship between its original military use and its later popularization for domestic policing.


A CS Canister found in Istanbul from a Brazilian producer, Condor, which was also responsible for the use of tear gas during the Bahrain protests (PHR: 2012). There have also been found CS shells from the American company Non Lethal Technologies, which on its website notes it is “experienced in the production of tear gas for the US Military.”

The four most conventional categories of what are called “Riot Control Agent” (RCAs)1 are CS, CN, OC and CR.2 The tear gas most popularly used by Turkey’s (and other contemporary) police forces is the so-called CS gas (ortho-Chlorobenzylidene Malononitrile). CS was widely used by American troops during the Vietnam War and was used earlier by the British military forces which extensively used it to suppress protests during the decolonization period. The more powerful and longer-lasting CN irritant (chloroacetophenone) has similarly been reported to have been used in Turkey. CN was developed by the American military in the 1920s which promoted it to become “a common US police weapon by the mid-1920’s” (Davison, 2006: 7). The CS variant is today, however, more popular than the CN gas. The Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (1967) stated that CS’s “‘more effective and safer’ nature meant ‘that that there should no longer be concern about “massive amounts of gas in densely populated areas’” (Davison, 2006: 9). OC (oleoresin capsicum) is a resin derivative and often used in combination with CS gas. There have been numerous reports that Turkish police forces used (locally produced) OC in water cannons, which has led to numerous cases of severe skin burns. There also have been rumors in Turkey of the use of an infamous and potentially lethal variant of CR gas (dibenzoxazepine), which was especially popular in British prisons during the Northern Ireland troubles, but these reports have largely remain unconfirmed. There is no doubt, however, that the use of tear gas has since the last wave of European protests and the Arab Spring revolutions been used with increasing frequency and in ever-larger quantities by both liberal democratic and authoritarian regimes. Official statistics on international RCA sales are hard to come by, but the growing popularity of these supposedly “non-lethal”3 agents are beyond dispute.


The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk (2009: 14) writes that “[t]he 20th century will be remembered as the age whose essential thought consisted in targeting no longer the body, but the enemy's environment.” This began, he argues, on April 22, 1915, “on the Western front as French-Canadian troops, surprised by the whitish-yellow gas cloud creeping over them from the northeast, fled the frontline in panic, coughing and screaming in retreat” (ibid., 30). The New York Times wrote, “the gaseous vapor [chlorine gas] which the Germans used against the French divisions near Ypres last Thursday, contrary to the rules of The Hague Convention, introduces a new element into warfare.” The deployment of chemical weapons was,however, already back then not limited to international warfare. The French police in 1912 used the dangerous RCA “White Cross’” (ethyl bromoacetate) which was subsequently used in WWI campaigns. White Cross is believed (e.g., Olajos and Stopford: 2004) to have been the first official RCA and remains until today listed as a RCA by the OPCW (WHO, 2004: 34). A great number of the tear agents used in WWI have over time, in fact, become tools for modern policing today.


Sloterdijk (2009) argues that all great disasters of the twentieth and twenty-first century are the result of what he calls “explication” or the designing and using of the air environment with the purpose of killing. One of the most obvious, yet illuminating, examples of “gas terrorism” in the twentieth century was, of course, the genocidal gas extermination during the Holocaust. The attractiveness of the encompassing destructiveness of gas lies in its uncomplicated capacity to vastly transform the environment for a relatively low price. The air on which all organisms depend becomes, as such, “a weapon and a battlefield of a peculiar kind” (Sloterdijk, 2009: 100).

Sloterdijk explains that the invention and deployment of chemical gasses provide the means to prevent the conditions that enable life. The chemical intervention means that warfare is no longer immediately conducted against humans, but that the instruments of war were deliberately meant to destabilize and alter the natural ecology in which humanity is able to exist. The use of gas is, in other words, targeted to disable the ability to breath and forces one to choose to die or, if there is such a possibility, to escape to a space where breathing (and thus life) is possible. The act of breathing is, to put it yet differently, transformed from a life-giving act to a life-endangering threat.

Gas and Law

The use of gas in “domestic warfare” demobilizes and forcefully dislocates unwanted elements from a particular place. The “disinfestation” of an area is, in fact, deployed in a similar manner and with the same objective in which farmers use insecticide against unwanted insects, which in turn prove harmful to the farmer’s agricultural yield. Gas is deployed to restore the “peace” and status quo that was lost as a result of an unwanted and undesirable appropriation of space. This uncomfortable comparison between rebellious protestors and unwanted insects is, in fact, echoed by the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC, Article II: 9), which states that the use of chemicals is legitimized for:

a. Industrial, agricultural, research, medical, pharmaceutical or other peaceful purposes;b. Protective purposes, namely those purposes directly related to protection against toxic chemicals and to protection against chemical weapons;c. Military purposes not connected with the use of chemical weapons and not dependent on the use of the toxic properties of chemicals as a method of warfare;d. Law enforcement including domestic riot control purposes.

Chemical weapons used for law enforcement are, therefore, not even defined as being “weapons” as such. The exemption of the use of gas for the purpose of "law enforcement" at best leaves open the question of its deployment and at worst legitimizes it. Another problem is the ambiguity in the CWC text on the intentionally left undefined term of “law enforcement.” The last clause in the above article (Article II: 9d) seems to suggest that “law enforcement” is not limited to “domestic riot control purposes” and that “the use of toxic chemicals for law enforcement purposes under the CWC is (therefore) not limited to (conventional) RCAs” (Fidler, 2003: 27). Article II.9(d) creates, in essence, room for the legitimate use of chemicals beyond conventional RCAs. The legal ambiguity has government funded Swiss scientists (Mogl, 2011), for example, inspired to discuss the possibilities for the inclusion of “Incapacitating Chemical Agents’ (ICAs) as a means of law enforcement in the CWC. ICAs attack the central nervous system and have an immediate effect on brain functions. “Simply put, RCAs make you run away from the scene, whilst ICA make you drop down” (FOCP, 2013).


The ambiguity surrounding the term “law enforcement” also means that the use of chemical weapons (RCA or other) can be used in any thinkable scenario in which “law enforcement” is deemed to be an appropriate category. The law allows, on the one hand, for the continued use of chemical weapons to suppress protesters but, on the other hand, also makes it difficult to legally argue against the (potential) use of chemical weapons in Syria (which did not sign the CWC). Obama’s "Bright Red Line" for Syria’s use of chemical weapons is, therefore, perhaps a lot more opaque than initially expected.

The CWC allows states to exercise what Weber called its “monopoly on violence.” This kind of violence is, however, fundamentally different than that of its predecessors. It is targeted, as mentioned earlier, against the ecological conditions from which life springs. It is used to securitize the territory and deployed against the organisms which inhabit it. This is strikingly made visible in the case of Gezi Park and other Turkish spaces where organisms (birds, humans, etc.) are forced to flee their location as the consequence of state sanctioned air terrorism.


The ongoing struggle over Gezi Park and other spaces around Turkey (and beyond) are no longer primarily being fought on the ground. They are instead increasingly taking place in the air. Legal ambiguities in international law have provided the (liberal and authoritarian) state with the authority to terrorize the air on which the life of resistance literally depends. Barricades have become increasingly ineffective tools to protects individuals from the state's monopoly on violence. Means of air conditioning (e.g. gas masks) have instead turned into the primary instruments of resilience. Any form of effective resistance against atmo-terrorism should, therefore, start by securing the air from which life springs.  


I am grateful to the editors of Society and Space for their comments on an earlier version. Many thanks especially to Peter Gratton for allowing me to contribute to this forum. 


1 RCAs include, according to the CWC, “any chemical not listed in a schedule which can produce rapidly in humans sensory irritation or disabling physical effects which disappear within a short time following termination or exposure.” For CWC schedules, see here.

2 The “CWC requires disclosure of their chemical identity but not the quantities in which they are held. The list declared in 2002 to be RCA included: Adamsite, Agent CN, Agent CS, Agent CR Chloropicrin, Agent OC, OC/CS mixture, MPA [sic], Ethylbromoacetate, Pepperspray [sic] [and] Pelargonic acid vanillylamide” (WHO 2004: 34).

3 The American-based NGO 'Physicians for Human Rights' (PHR) counted 34 fatal victims of tear gas attacks during the Bahrain protests in 2011 and 2012.


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