Pulp Librarian+ Your Authors @PulpLibrarian Curator of the art, history and fiction of old dreams. Jun. 04, 2020 4 min read + Your Authors

One chemical weapon is still widely used across the world: tear gas.

Banned in war it can be deployed in peacetime as a riot control agent. But where did it come from? And where is this technology going?

Today in pulp I look at the history of tear gas... #ThursdayThoughts

Lachrymator agents are chemicals that cause severe eye and respiratory pain along with skin irritation. The effects are temporary but highly debilitating. Due to way they trigger the human tear response they are colloquially known as 'tear gas.'

However they are not a gas. The active agents in tear gas are solids; particulates that need to be dispersed as an aerosol, spray or powder. Dispersal methods can include explosives, pressurised gases or solvents.

The earliest lachrymator agent - ethyl bromoacetate - was used by French police in 1912 and later deployed during WW1, delivered by rifle-launched grenade. Although more toxic than chlorine it proved ineffective: the grenades failed to create an effective aerosol.

Phenacyl chloride proved to be a more effective tear gas agent. After the war significant efforts were made to market it to police forces as a modern riot control measure. A number of public relations stunts were staged to impress law enforcement officers of its effectiveness.

Known as CN gas it was deployed in 1932 by National Guard troops in Washington DC, to disperse the Bonus Army - WW1 veterans who were campaigning for overdue wartime payments. CN gas was soon nicknamed "The Hoover ration" by the affected veterans.

Aggressive marketing soon saw CN gas adopted by many police forces and colonial administrations worldwide for crowd control and dispersion. However another nerve agent was soon to prove even more popular...

2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile was first synthesised by chemists Ben Corson and Roger Stoughton in 1928. Its effects on the human body were greater than those of CN gas and it seemed potentially safer. Its name took the initials of its creators: CS gas.

CS gas was first weaponized at the British Porton Down laboratory in the 1950s. It reacts with moisture on the skin, eyes and in the lungs to create a violent burning sensation, along with mucous discharge, coughing, vomiting, and breathing issues.

Symptoms begin to subside in around an hour, although excessive exposure can lead to long-lasting health issues especially in people with pre-existing medical conditions. CS exposure soon became a part of military training to ensure soldiers knew how to respond to gas attacks.

CS was widely used in the 1960s during the waves of civil unrest that swept the US. It was deployed by grenade and by helicopter to disperse groups occupying campuses. Despite being banned as a war weapon it was also deployed in Vietnam against VC tunnel systems.

Tear gas was also repurposed as a personal protection weapon in the 1960s. Mace - a mix of CN gas and hydrocarbon solvent packaged into an aerosol tube - became widely available for both police and civilian use.

Designed to be squirted at close quarters into the face, products such as Mace expanded the market for tear gas into new areas. As a 'safe and legal' alternative to firearms they were aggressively marketed to a nervous public.

This was expanded by the introduction of pepper spray in the 1980s. Oleoresin capsicum (OC), derived from chilies, was turned into an aerosol to be sprayed into the eyes, causing severe pain and temporary blindness. CS and OC agents are now in most police inventories worldwide.

Whilst tear gas agents remain unchanged their method of delivery has become more advanced. Tear gas is an arbitrary and indiscriminate agent, so great efforts are made by manufacturers to convince buyers that CS and OC agents can be precisely and effectively targeted at people.

Repeat firing CS guns are now widely available, replacing the older single-shot CS launcher. The aim is to allow one person to lay down a barrage of CS agent over a defined area. Canisters are also designed to make them harder for protestors to kick or throw away.

Pepper ball rifles work in a similar way. Using a similar method to paintball guns they can spray small OC pellets a considerable distance with a high rate of fire. On impact the pellets release clouds of OC agent to blind and incapacitate.

This increase in rapid, targeted delivery mechanisms is leading to tear gas being used as a first response to civil unrest, regardless of its consequences. 'Gas first, talk later' is as unproductive as it is inept as a mass policing strategy.

Tear gas is also increasingly used not to disperse crowds but to split them up so other blunt force interventions can be used more effectively: plastic bullets, beanbag and stinger rounds, or baton charges.

Crowd control is an area where military rather than police tactics are beginning to hold sway. The indiscriminate use of 'less lethal' weapons is becoming a means of instilling fear into protestors, rather than controlling and policing mass gatherings.

De-escalation and dialogue remain the best tactics for policing large crowds. The use of tear gas always represents a failure of effective community-based policing. To use it as a first response is a sign that strategic command of the situation is lacking.

Across the world protestors are no longer deterred by indiscriminate use of tear gas. Other tactics, other approaches need to be pursued so that lawful dissent can be policed and rights respected. Tear gas belongs in the 20th century, not the 21st.

More stories another time...

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