If tear gas were only as dangerous as its name suggests, it would be an ideal tool to use against rioters. But it does much worse than provoke excessive flow of tears.
The chemical agents being used to disperse crowds in the Twin Cities and elsewhere — scores of times since the murder of George Floyd nearly a year ago — are dangerous enough that emergency room workers are advised to double-bag and seal the clothing of exposed victims.
Lung damage, blindness, abnormal menstruation, miscarriage, coma, heart failure, death: The list of known or suspected health effects of CS, CN and similar agents is long and frightening. If they were side effects that needed to be disclosed to patients before a procedure, few would give consent. No one would voluntarily choose exposure to such hazards.
There is nothing voluntary, though, about exposure to tear gas. It is by its nature indiscriminate. It affects people who are beyond the center of action in a riot. It wafts through neighborhoods and seeps into homes and businesses. Area residents describe coughing fits they've suffered indoors, even after stuffing wet towels around windows.
"In a COVID time, the last thing you want to do is cause an inflammatory reaction inside the lungs that may be long-lasting," said Dr. Steven Miles, professor emeritus of medicine and bioethics at the University of Minnesota. He pointed out the particular risk posed by the gas in neighborhoods with high concentrations of people of color, who already suffer disproportionately from COVID-19.
Of course, they also suffer disproportionately from the effects of protests-turned-riots, as the owners of burned businesses along Lake Street in Minneapolis and looted businesses in Brooklyn Center can attest. It is easier to object to tear gas than to suggest a credible alternative. In disturbances like those that followed Floyd's murder and Daunte Wright's fatal encounter with police in Brooklyn Center, law enforcement agencies must choose among bad options.
It's worth remembering that the deaths and injuries at Kent State, 51 years ago this week, happened because National Guard troops resorted to live ammunition after tear gas had proved ineffective.
The casualties at Kent State were also the result of inadequate training and poor communication among Guard troops. At a minimum, law enforcement agencies should insist that personnel be scrupulously trained in the use of chemical agents to minimize the risk to innocent people, whether neighboring residents or legitimate protesters. Such training should also teach officers to aim tear-gas projectiles so that they don't hit people or land on apartment balconies, as reportedly happened in Brooklyn Center.
And the authorities should give a complete public accounting of the chemical agents in their arsenals. A spokeswoman for one of the agencies involved in Brooklyn Center said officials were investigating whether such information might be of tactical use to rioters, who would then know "how far back they might need to stand based on what we say we're using."
Here's a more realistic prospect: That medical personnel may be called upon to treat victims, and they need the best possible information about the chemical agents to which their patients have been exposed. That's especially true if medical staff are trying to care for COVID patients.
The use of tear gas has been proscribed by international agreement since 1925, when the horrors of chemical weapons in World War I were fresh in memory. The United States signed on to that agreement more recently, after the end of the Vietnam War.
The international prohibition should serve as a reminder that such agents are dangerous and their use must be limited to the most serious threats to public safety. And, ideally, there would be a better way to de-escalate tensions before they lead to mob violence. Perhaps Minnesota authorities, with their newly gained expertise in crowd control, can find it.