Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Ricin, Schmicin; or, The Terrorists Have Won

In my self-torturing effort to keep abreast of the zeitgeist, from time to time I look in on the evening network news. Last night NBC and CBS both devoted a few seconds to the world historical disaster in Iraq; and featured long, breathless stories about a University of Texas sophomore who found a mysterious white powder in a roll of quarters. As I presume you know by now if you have poked your head above the blast wall, she called the police who used a field test which yielded a positive result for ricin, whereupon they evacuated the dormitory and men in moon suits started hauling out buckets of something-or-other for further testing. (Just imagine the toxic stew of vendor machine pastry filling, spilled popcorn oil, stale semen and spermicide, bhang water, and congealed grain alcohol and KoolAid in those buckets.)

NBC repeatedly described ricin as "a component of biological weapons." CBS had the raving ratcheted down to "a potent biotoxin." Now, I'll bet you a subscription to The Journal of Transgressive Post-Feminist Semiotics that upon further testing, the mysterious white powder will turn out to be, not ricin, but paper dust from a printing calculator or the machine that put the quarters in the sleeve. If Osama figured that the best way to kick off the final battle to destroy the United States was to attack a University of Texas sophomore through her change for the washing machine, we probably should feel relieved.

However, you don't need me to point out the obvious. What I have to add is the absurdity of the ricin hype, which we'll apparently have to bury at the crossroads with a silver stake through its heart if we ever want to kill it. During the Weapons of Mass Destruction™ hysteria leading up to the criminal aggression against Iraq, we heard about ricin in screaming headlines week after week. Supposedly it had been found in a train locker in France, in somebody's apartment in England, in the cubicle of a computer programmer in California. The terrorists were coming with ricin to kill us all! The Boston Globe described ricin as a "germ weapon" and after I wrote to them, adamantly refused to run a correction, claiming that Congress had proclaimed it to be one and that was good enough for them. (Seriously. Congress could repeal the law of gravity but that would not cause us all to float off the earth. The Globe also reported that Jack Abramoff "gave generously to Democrats" and refuses to run a correction. Do not believe anything you read in the Boston Globe.)

Okay folks, time to get a grip. Ricin is not a germ weapon, or a biological weapon in any meaningful sense of the term. It is a chemical poison -- just like all the popular poisons of detective fiction since Sherlock Holmes. If you want to kill somebody with ricin, you have to get them to eat it or inhale it, or inject them with it -- just like cyanide, arsenic, atropine. It is "biological" in the sense that it is derived from a plant, but so are most common poisons. It is a "biotoxin" inasmuch as it is a toxin; all toxins are "biotoxins," that's what toxin means, a harmful biologically active substance. It is not especially useful for military or terrorist weapons because it is non-volatile. You could open a 50 gallon drum of ricin in the subway and it would just sit there. Its claim to fame is that it is an unusually potent poison by weight, so the KGB favored it for assassinations, but they could have used other poisons to equally good effect. That's it. It's nothing special. And those field tests are intentionally designed to be highly sensitive at the cost of specificity, in other words they readily give false positive readings.

If the entire country can be provoked to mass hysteria every time somebody finds talcum powder in a medicine cabinet or guacamole spilled on a sidewalk, al Qaeda can just sit back and watch us drown in our own stupidity. Their diabolical scheme is working.

No comments: