Donald Trump suggested commercial airline pilots should be able to use "sleeping gas" to stop terrorists during a conversation on The Howard Stern Show shortly after the 9/11 terror attacks. But employing such a gas could prove deadly.
"You have a red button in the plane, and the pilot has a huge problem in the back. He's got two or three terrorists, you know, going crazy," Trump said in comments revealed in a conversation he had with Stern that is one of dozens being archived by Factba.se. "He presses a button and sleeping gas comes out, the entire back of the plane goes to sleep."
"You now wake up at Kennedy Airport, LaGuardia Airport, they come in, they take the terrorists, knock the crap out of them, hang them from the black of the plane. The rest of the people wake up and they have a nice rest," Trump added. "They have a gas, that's a beautiful sleeping gas, that puts people to sleep."
As part of Trump's plan, the pilots would have gas masks to protect themselves from exposure. "We do not want the pilots to fall asleep," Trump said.
At the time, the future president admitted he had not read much on the subject of sleeping gas but claimed "everybody that's heard it loves the idea."
Roughly a year after Trump made these comments—in October 2002—Russian security forces employed knockout gas in an attempt to subdue Chechen militants who seized a Moscow theater and took over 700 hostages. Ultimately, 130 people were killed, but not by the hostage takers. The gas has been widely cited as the cause of the majority of the hostage deaths, though Russian forces were able to eliminate the Chechen militants.
It's believed Russian forces had used a derivative of fentanyl, an opiate-based narcotic 100 times more powerful than morphine, which is typically used to prevent pain during surgeries. Dozens of hostages died horrifying deaths: They choked on their vomit, suffocated and swallowed their tongues.
The tragic incident in Russia highlights the dangers in using chemicals that incapacitate people, regardless of how benevolent the intentions behind their use might be. In short, the risks arguably outweigh the benefits.
Beyond concerns over the potential for loss of life, there are also legal hurdles to using incapacitating chemicals.
International law—the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention—prohibits the use of "riot control agents as a method of warfare." This includes "toxic chemicals" that could lead to "temporary incapacitation." The law doesn't necessarily apply to domestic police forces, however, due its very specific language. This helps explain why U.S. police routinely use tear gas, which is also illegal in warfare based on the law.
The U.S. government, including the Pentagon, has looked at developing nonlethal "incapacitating" chemical weapons, including those that would be sleep-inducing often referred to as "calmatives." But the government has often met with frustration in these efforts because of the laws on the books.
"In many instances, our forces are allowed to shoot somebody and kill them, but they're not allowed to use a nonlethal riot-control agent," former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once complained to lawmakers.
Based on what happened in Russia in 2002 and current international law, the use of such chemicals by the U.S. in any capacity would likely face numerous objections on both legal and ethical grounds. But since that 2001 interview, of course Trump became president.