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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 25th August 2011

There were some thunderstorms around, yesterday. I didn’t see any, in fact our weather was rather nice from the late morning on but I did see someone complaining that they were stuck under a storm and their fancy weather radar, the sort used by sports’ venues, showed nothing at all.

It’s a bit of a stretch, you may well think, but I could see a couple of analogies between thunderstorms like that and the recent alleged Al Qaeda ricin bomb plot.

Thunderstorms often first manifest themselves as a distant rumble that doesn’t get heard by everybody. Then, as the storm builds everyone becomes aware of it. Once it passes, the noise of it fades but, sometimes, it may return to some extent and roll up and down for a while before disappearing.

And that has been my experience of the ‘ricin bomb’ story.  It first appeared in the New York Times and, since I’ve only seen it online, I don’t know how prominent it was in the printed edition. But, it was spotted by other media who re-reported it so that, for a couple of days, there was quite a storm in newspapers, online news services, blogs and, inevitably, Twitter.

I’m sorry, but not surprised, to say that the UK papers did their best to remove any sense that this was an alleged plot and tried to make it more real. Typically, Al Qaeda’s reported hunt for castor beans was conveyed as though it had been successful. But, gradually, more people took the view that this was a fantasy and some even spotted what I’d noticed, that is the coincidence of the New York Times publishing the story just as the reporters had a new book being published.

And so, the storm abated and the number of references to it reduced. But, then it entered the ‘rumbling around’ phase with new references to it appearing that seemed to have taken no notice of the, by now, numerous rebuttals. The American right-wing, in particular, seems keen to keep believing it. I don’t expect anyone to pay attention to me but it is somewhat depressing to find that experts in the field who have pointed out the many flaws in the story are still ignored by those who want to believe in it. Or, want others to believe in it.

But, there is a second part to this analogy that may be more of a reverse analogy, if there is such a thing. In the opposite of the way that yesterday’s storm existed but did not appear on the radar, the ‘ricin bomb plot’ appears on the radar, for some, but does not exist.

I’ve been asking myself, again, why this is. I’ve thought before that the only possible explanations are that the security services, more particularly in the USA but also in the UK, either are that stupid or that they hope to get ‘amateur’ terrorists tied up spending their time on a project that can never succeed. But, I’ve realised that there just might be another answer.

Let me say, I’m not dismissing the notion of a terrorist threat. I fully understand that there are people who would very much like to kill me, and as many of my fellow citizens as possible, and that these people are constantly looking at ways to do this. I just don’t think that using ricin is the way they are going to achieve their goal. The point is that I don’t know what they will do and nor, I suspect, in spite of communications monitoring and some very brave people infiltrating potential terrorist groups, do the authorities.

The trouble comes because saying ‘We know there is a threat but we have no idea what it is’ is not re-assuring to an anxious public that invests far more power in its government than can ever be merited. Something has to be said that makes us think that the security services are on top of the problem and we sleep soundly knowing we are protected albeit from a non-existent danger.

A man stood in Trafalgar Square in London wearing a hat that was covered in bells. When asked, by a passer-by, why he was wearing the hat he said it was to keep the elephants away. “But there are no elephants in Trafalgar Square” the rather puzzled passer-by said. “You see, it works!”

The US government is believed to be spending up to $100m financing the development of a vaccine against ricin. I hope it is worth all that money just to keep the elephants away.    


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