Skunk water: stench as a weapon of war

Ramallah, Occupied Territories (openDemocracy) – “Streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of mouldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlours stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber-pots… There was no human activity, either constructive or destructive of germinating or decaying life, that was not accompanied by stench.”

Patrick Süskind’s celebrated novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer takes place in eighteenth-century France. The story revolves around an exceptional perfume apprentice by the name of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille who, at the beginning of the story, receives training from an aged Parisian perfumer. Grenouille’s mentor warns him that “the persuasive power of an odour cannot be fended off, it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally. There is no remedy for it.”

I was recently reminded of Süskind’s book upon learning that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) deploy a stinking liquid against Palestinian protestors. The company producing the weapon, which it “designed in consultation with the Israeli police”, celebrates the product as “the most innovative and effective riot control method available.” Skunk, the official name given to the fetid water, “is an innovative, non-lethal riot control method with proven effectiveness. A pungent, foul-smelling – yet completely non-toxic – liquid spray, it quickly disperses the most determined of violent demonstrators.” Odortec Ltd. seems to be marketing Skunk water as if selling a product which eradicates undesirable germs.

Rats, insects, and vermin

Palestinians stand in defiance. Some rights reserved.Unlike cleaning products, however, Skunk water does not wash away dirt. It creates pollution where there was none before. One can easily imagine whose bodies the pestilential water is designed to fumigate. Israeli Human Rights organisation B’Tselem notes that Skunk is rarely, if ever, used at demonstrations with only Jewish or Israeli dissidents. The targets are Palestinian bodies, singled out according to an ethnic hierarchy for the Skunk treatment. Indeed, as one astute commentator has written, the pestilent “Skunk” that infiltrates Palestinian houses, sticking to bodies and objects for days in its wake, is much like how one would normally treat rats, insects and vermin: the very atmosphere is not fit to breathe in, and they flee.

The IDF presents Skunk as the perfect, liberal weapon of choice in its war against undesirables. Contaminating the air with the foul stench helps overcome the many legal and ethical problems popularly associated with the IDF’s conventional physical means of disciplining Palestinian resistance. A spokesman for the IDF tells the BBC that “by choosing to use this tool [Skunk]… the ethical problem is solved as there’s no need to hurt the protesters even if they act violently.”

"Abbey Road, Israeli version" by Carlos Latuff

“Abbey Road, Israeli version” by Carlos Latuff

Odortec and the IDF remind us that besides its “cost-effectiveness” and “humane” character, Skunk is also “eco-friendly”, making it “harmless to both nature and people.” David Ben Harosh, superintendent of the Israeli police’s department for technological development, assured the BBC that Skunk is “totally harmless, you can even drink it.” Why would one drink something which – even according to its own makers – has an “outrageous smell”?

The IDF’s appetite for foul smells is so insatiable, however, that it regularly uses designated Skunk trucks to soak Palestinian streets, gardens, homes, schools; equipped with water cannons, these trucks can turn entire neighbourhoods rancid. Nobody seems safe from the IDF’s thirst for “biodegradable” Skunk, not even the dead. A 2012 video shows police officials contaminating a Muslim funeral procession in Hebron, sparing neither mourners nor the body of the deceased from the stench of Skunk water. This evidence is particularly damning considering the emphasis on ritual purification (‘Ghusl’) in Islamic funerals.

Not everybody seems to share the same taste in perfume as the IDF; thosethat have inhaled its vile aroma write that Skunk “smells like a mix of faeces and animal carcass – gagging is almost inevitable.” Others have described it as “worse than raw sewage” and “like a mixture of excrement, noxious gas and a decomposing donkey”. One taster, Muad Tamimi, who works at a site frequently doused in the IDF’s “Cologne de Skunk”, says that it smells “beyond foul water, like a dead body and rotting food together, which no soap or perfume can take off”. Muad describes a reverse “Axe effect” in which after being “hit with it… nobody goes near me for days.” The strength of the stench seems to express something of the hate felt towards the Palestinian person. It is disgust communicated in a language more powerful than words.

Some, unfamiliar with Süskind’s novel, might ask themselves what harm a little spraying of the air (with a mix of yeast, baking powder (sodium bicarbonate) and water) can do to the body. Liberal media such as the BBC even hail Skunk as a welcome alternative to “rubber-coated bullet[s] or choking and vomiting under the effects of tear-gas or pepper-spray.” It is precisely this insensitivity to the truly debilitating power of smell which seems to have granted Skunk such popularity that now US law enforcement agencies are also interested.

Police Departments across the US have already started to stockpile the malodorant while the US Department of Defence (DoD) has proven equally eager to exploit the possible strategic advantages that could be attained by contaminating the air with an unbearable stench. Military strategists have already started dreaming about the opportunities afforded by such “dirty wars” and American security companies are advertising its potential for “border crossings, correctional facilities, demonstrations and sit-ins.”

Legal ambiguities

A much nicer skunk. Some rights reserved.Underestimation of how fundamental smell really is seems to account for the lack of clear legal regulations on the usage of malodorants more generally. A spokesperson of the DoD correctly notes that “if a particular malodorant is disseminated with a concentration that does not activate the trigeminal nerve, it may not require designation as an RCA [Riot Control Agent] under the CWC [Chemical Weapons Convention].” There does not even seem to be international agreement that Skunk can be classified as a “toxic chemical” according to the CWC’s current definitions. Legal ambiguities surrounding the use of Skunk (and possible future variants) mean that it can at present be used against anybody at any given time. This is particularly evident in the case of Israel, one of a few countries which has not even ratified the regulations of the CWC.

As with Grenouille’s wonder perfume, the enfeebling power of the Skunk’s stench “cannot be fended off, it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally.” It is smell’s permeating quality, entering the body, suffusing the environment, and crippling the senses, which makes it such an attractive instrument for policing. Skunk is not targeted against the individual but alters the total environment in which bodies must breathe and smell. For these reasons, Israeli human rights groups have described its deployment as “a collective punishment for a whole area.” Precisely because it modifies the air itself, Skunk leaves no body, animal or thing untouched and everything exposed to it is doused in a miasma worse still than that of Süskind’s eighteenth-century France.

Perhaps the worst part of all is that it sticks. An Israeli reporter notes that his camera smelled for nearly half a year after being hit with only a few drops of Skunk water. Skunk sticks to the body so much that it overwhelms the body’s own odour. This physical transformation results in experiences of humiliation and both personal and social exclusion. More than one victim has admitted that the spraying of bodies makes you feel “unhuman. It’s a humiliation for people. What’s going on? The people here are not animals.”

Smell, smelling and being smelled, are inherent, yet often ignored, parts of what it means to be human. Writing about anti-Semitism, Theodor Adorno and Marx Horkheimer famously explained that smell is more expressive than the other senses. “When we see we remain what we are; but when we smell we are taken over by otherness. Hence the sense of [bad] smell is considered a disgrace in civilization, the sign of lower social strata, lesser races and base animals.” Anti-Semites believed in the purity of their smells and felt a natural compulsion to “sniff-out” the bodies of dirty Jews. Their next logical step was “disinfection”.

When Palestinians argue that Skunk water dehumanises, they not only make an ethical claim, but express a simple fact: by deliberately attacking and modifying the body’s natural odour in a malignant way, an essential ingredient of one’s humanity is converted into the barbarian Palestinian other. Skunk water takes possession of the body, transmuting persons into the living image of the ‘vile Palestinian’. Under the liberal pretext of non-lethality, Skunk forges lines of racial division according to a hierarchy of smells, between the stench of bestial savagery and the deodorised fragrance of civilisation. It authorises the state to violently cleanse its lands along racial lines.

*The author wishes to thank Lisa Tilley (PhD student at the University of Warwick) for providing the inspiration to write this essay.

This report was prepared by MARIJN NIEUWENHUIS  for openDemocracy.