As the number of wounded and killed has climbed in Egypt in recent days, a number of journalists and bloggers have reported that several of the tear gas canisters being fired at protesters in Tahrir Square carry blue ‘Made in USA’ stamps, and indications that they were made by a company based in Jamestown, Pennsylvania, called Combined Tactical Systems. Comparing a recently posted picture of one such shell with the illustrations on CTS’s website suggests it may well be a 40 mm projectile with the catalogue number 4230.
CTS’s product #4230 is a CS gas canister designed for riot control, appropriate in its own bleak way to the dispersal of large crowds, but allegations have been multiplying over the last couple of days that weapons of considerably greater toxicity are being used. Eyewitnesses report that protesters have been coughing blood or convulsing after being exposed to incapacitating agents, and suspicions are rife that the authorities are using CN gas (mace) and CR gas. CS gas has never unequivocally been shown to be lethal, but the other two have claimed several lives over the years, and their sustained deployment in downtown Cairo is exposing civilians – many of whom are entirely peaceful – to very high levels.
The use of chemical weapons marked ‘Made in USA’ is causing outrage in Egypt. And though America’s export of CS canisters hardly proves an anti-Arab plot – not least because noxious substances have been used against protesters in the US in recent weeks – the Israeli flag flying alongside the Stars and Stripes at CTS headquarters is a reminder that fears can be wildly exaggerated without being entirely unfounded. At the very least, it suggests that CTS may not be entirely indifferent to the political sympathies of its customers in the Middle East.
CTS aspires to a degree of corporate transparency. The name of its website, www.less-lethal.com, nods, however modestly, to its participation in the business of death, and a slick online catalogue displays its weapons with some pride, even if it insists on obscuring their purpose with such phrases as ‘indoor grenade solutions’. Given that it manufactures at least one of the products that is currently being associated in Egypt with unusual respiratory injuries, CN gas, I’ve asked the company if it is prepared to confirm or deny that it is supplying CN gas products to the Egyptian government. I have not yet received a reply. It would also be useful to establish precisely what CTS tells its customers about the safe use of its less lethal solutions. It certainly offers some advice: a safety data sheet observes that CN gas can aggravate the respiratory tract, and it warns that attention should be sought from qualified medical persons ‘if any medical problem arises from the use of this product’.
There is little sign that health and safety concerns are restraining the Egyptian authorities, however, and none at all to suggest that anyone is considering the possibility of unusually serious effects being cause by the extended use of crowd dispersal agents. I’ve asked CTS about that, too. Even an arms manufacturer has a minimal duty of care, and any firm that boasts of limited lethality presumably considers itself bound by a relatively high moral standard – if only by comparison to those whose products unashamedly maim and kill.