Lots of bloggic chat (Kieran Healy is a good place to start) about whether the Russians were right or wrong to use poison gas in the Moscow theater hostage situation. I can see both sides of the issue. My tentative view is that if most of the hostages are alive and all of the hostage-takers are dead, that’s at least a good start.

But it does raise the question about whether it’s right to call gas, as well as germs and nukes, “weapons of mass destruction.” Note that no one would defend the use of a tactical nuke, or even a quick-acting biological agent (if there were such a thing) in this situation, but the use of gas is at least debatable, and arguably not substantially different ethically from taking the building back in an Attica-style assault. (What if using gas would kill an eighth of the hostages, while a quarter were likely to die in an assault? Would it be obvious that the assault was ethically preferable?)

This event ought to, though it probably will not, put a crimp in the argument that SH’s use of poison gas on Iraqis is by itself adequate evidence that he would use nukes, if he had them, on us or the Israelis. I’m not saying that he wouldn’t, only that the use of gas can hardly be conclusive in this regard unless we’re willing to treat Russia as a rogue state now.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: