An unexploded mortar shell fired by the Syrian Army in the Mleha suburb of Damascus, January 25, 2013. (Goran Tomasevic / Courtesy Reuters)

The rebels in Syria could be excused for wondering what U.S. policy toward them might be. At times, President Barack Obama has implied that the United States can’t do much to help them because none of them has been gassed. By threatening “enormous consequences” should the Syrian regime use chemical weapons, he seemed to be saying that the first chemical attack would bring the Americans running in, guns blazing. Although understandable, that is likely to be a substantial misreading of the message coming out Washington.

The notion that killing with gas is more reprehensible than killing with bullets or shrapnel came out of World War I, in which chemical weapons, introduced by the Germans in 1915, were used extensively. The British emphasized the weapons’ inhumane aspects as part of

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  • JOHN MUELLER is a political scientist at Ohio State University and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He is co-author of the recent Terror, Security, and Money: Balancing the Risks, Costs, and Benefits of Homeland Security.
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