Anybody wanting to grasp the originality of the era has to consider the practice of terrorism, the concept of product design, and environmental thinking – writes Peter Sloterdijk in “Terror from the Air”. In his opinion, the convergence of these three elements defines the modernity of the last century, the beginning of which Sloterdijk situates exactly on 22 April 1915 in Ypres. On that day German troops used chlorine gas against French soldiers, which introduced a radical change in the way warfare was conducted and marked a transition from war in the classical sense to terrorism. Terror from the air began an era in which the target of an attack was not only the enemy’s body, but also his surroundings. From then on, what would be attacked in both war and peacetime would be the conditions necessary for life.
After both world wars and the traumas they caused, gas began to be seen as a symbol of previously unimaginable atrocities. The Geneva Protocol, signed in 1925, prohibited the use of chemical and biological weapons in international armed conflict. In 1997, the ‘Chemical Weapons Convention’ (the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons), ratified by 190 states, entered into force. However, this treaty creates an exception for ‘riot control’. Thus, the use of gas is no longer the most inhumane act of warfare but becomes a “humanitarian” tool in the hands of the police – a “soft” and “democratic” tool of repression.
Every day, tear gas canisters are fired somewhere in the world. But while in the Global North activists may be exposed to gas during demonstrations, it is not an integral part of their everyday life. For them, experiencing gas is a shocking, surprising and extreme event. In contrast, in places like the Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank, gas grenades are fired several times a week, and in some months, daily. So the residents had to adapt to its horrid, noxious presence.
The first line of defence against the gas is to wear a breathing mask. Protesters usually do not have access to the right equipment and are forced to make their own gas masks from materials available to them – plastic water bottles, soda cans, old T-shirts. This is a grassroots, consistent upcycling against toxicity of the state and systemic oppression. Now that police brutality and gas abuse are on the rise, we can learn from those who have been resisting for years.