And not in the gradual fashion of an organic cry, with the palpable build-up of liquid emotion that your body ultimately can’t contain and spills out onto your cheeks, your shirt, your lover’s shoulder.
Tear gas makes your eyes rain.
That, however, is among the least distressing of its characteristics, as I discovered firsthand a few weeks ago. It was towards the end of March, and I had gone out to take some photos and do a few interviews for an article I was writing about Newroz, a spring equinox festival celebrated by the Kurdish community in Turkey. (I’ll note now, though it will become obvious soon enough, that it is not celebrated by the ethnic Turks of Turkey.)
Families had gathered in a park along the Bosphorus, the crowd spilling out into the avenue and filling the square across the street. A group of women wearing dresses colored the red, green and gold of the Kurdish flag posed for pictures, then clasped hands in a circle and began dancing. Two young boys had scaled a traffic sign that stretched out over the avenue and were waving a makeshift flag in the breeze. A group of older boys had built a small bonfire and were taking turns leaping over the flame, the iconic Newroz activity. The fire, people say, symbolizes the light of spring following the long darkness of winter. It symbolizes hope; it shows us we can get to the other side.
When I looked up next from where I stood watching the boys jump, I realized something wasn’t right. The smoke in the sky wasn’t from the fire. It was white, and streaming towards us in neat parabolas. Suddenly, we were running. I was grateful that I had opted for my sturdiest pair of boots as I propelled myself over the thoroughfare’s waist-high median, heading towards the water and away from the incoming rockets of tear gas.
Within seconds, the effect was palpable. My eyes were streaming tears. My nose was burning, then gushing snot. My throat felt sandpapered, and my exposed arms were tingling. The pain was centered in the corners of my eyes and my sinuses. My face, I felt, was on fire. Or being eaten away by acid. Or sliced open, then doused with Everclear. I pressed my scarf to my nose and mouth and made my way as quickly as I could out of the range of the tear gas, though its range kept expanding as the police fired new volleys. There is no desire like the desire for oxygen.
Sounds of children crying and older women wailing filled the air, punctuated by the tinkling of shattered glass as angry boys threw rocks at street signs and bus stops and anything else that looked breakable. Then came the undeniable crack of gunfire. From where, to where, from whom, at what—I didn’t know, and I didn’t much care. I was scared, and I was in pain, and I was having trouble breathing, and I could barely see through my tears, which had ceased to be purely chemical.
It’s callow, I know, but the journalist in me demands this level of honesty: on the heels of oh fuck, my first fully formed thought was they’re not paying me enough for this.
Another confession: after getting out of range, I hid on the rocks by the water, trying to catch my breath and still my vibrating body. Then I ran through the crowd to the street, hailed a cab, and fled the scene. The taxi driver complained that people in traffic had been hit by the tear gas, too, and cursed the Kurds, whom he blamed for the incident. I nodded, incapable of comment, and reminded myself to breathe.
Soon enough I was home, safe and showered and curled up on a couch. It was easy for me to insert an ending into my version of the story; I had the option of getting in a cab. It was less easy, though, for me to move past the experience, to make sense of it.
It was the pain that I couldn’t get off my mind. It wasn’t that it was physically so bad—the effects wore off pretty quickly, and were hardly the worst I’ve felt—it was the fact that the pain I did experience was intentional. The police had indiscriminately sprayed a group of unarmed civilians with a poisonous substance invented by scientists tinkering around in a laboratory somewhere, sprayed us with the intent to hurt us.
Someone manufactured this pain. Someone determined the proper ratios to inflict exactly this much pain, because any less wouldn’t make for an effective deterrent, and any more might incapacitate the crowd so much that it couldn’t flee. People packaged and shipped this pain and sold it to the police and the army, then went home and had dinner with their families.
I had been attacked with a chemical weapon. This is a remarkable term. We, as people, have spent money and brain cells coming up with chemical concoctions designed to harm other people. Some of them, like tear gas, are classified as “nonlethal” and “safe.”
Nonlethal. Meaning it won’t kill you. As if short of death, the effects of violence are irrelevant. As if there’s living and there’s dying and there’s nothing dark lingering in between. As if there’s no such thing as torture, or immoderate use of force, or just plain overkill. That this the standard used to justify the measures taken against unarmed civilians—and this is not just in Turkey, we should remind ourselves, this is on American streets and college campuses, too—is an abomination.
I don’t mean to come across as naïve here. I’m not a doe-eyed hawker of phrases like “world peace.” What the physical experience of this unfeeling violence did was not enlighten me as to the evils of warfare and the military industrial complex and the growing security obsession; what it did do was lift the jaded fog through which I typically view these issues. What it did was make me human, and make the issue one of humanity.
Because I don’t believe in god, when I feel the need to defer to a higher power, I turn to books. I found myself browsing a publication put out by the BBC that recommends to those affected by tear gas, “Hold your breath and do not panic.” I tried to picture doing both of these things at once.
Later, I consulted The Compendium of Chemical Warfare Agents, a reference book that epitomizes our uncanny ability to rationalize the irrational. The author outlines the chemical nature, relevant tactics, shelf life, and protective measures for various chemical weapons, which he meticulously categorizes for the reader’s convenience. Sternutators, we learn, are compounds that make victims vomit. Urticant is “a substance which produces a stinging sensation, as if with nettles.”
I had hoped, I suppose, to find some sort of solace in the science. All I ended up discovering was cognitive dissonance. In the glossary, the term “biological warfare” redirects to “biological operation,” as if it’s routine surgery we’re talking about.
This is a story, in part, about human rights in a country far from the one I was born in. But it is more than that. It is also a story about what it means to be a citizen of a powerful country with a frighteningly well-equipped military in the early twenty-first century. It is a story about existing as a vulnerable, feeling individual in the face of an armored, monolithic authority.
It the same story we saw unfold at UC Davis, and it is inextricably tied to the story of Trayvon Martin, whose tragic experience is just the most recent iteration of an ongoing problem. It is a story about young people and minorities who are upset because they feel certain they were promised something more than what their parents and leaders have left them. It is a story of those parents and leaders reacting to these demands with denial and repression.
Finally, it is a story of language. It is a story that reveals the danger of phrases like “riot control” and “terrorism,” which presuppose the motives and morality of a state’s opposition and thereby justify extreme uses of force. Terrorism is a word that lets a president kill a US citizen abroad with no process of law. Riots are what happen in places like Watts and Harlem and Kurdish neighborhoods of Istanbul, while protests are the purview of hippies and yuppies and whoever else is dismissed as a non-threat.
Tear gas certainly isn’t “safe.” But more than that, it’s not even nonlethal; tear gas and other types of state-sponsored violence and coercion do kill. They kill our rights and our spirits and our sense of community. They annihilate our dignity and our ability to trust. They tell us that flames are not symbols of hope, but of destruction.
Don’t let the reference books tell you otherwise; warfare and operation are not synonyms. This is our language, and it is our responsibility to use it to describe as accurately as possible what it is we see, what it is we want, and what it is we believe in.
Take a moment and inhale.
We can only hold our collective breath for so long before it’s too late to panic, because we’re all unconscious.