Monday, January 25, 2010

Sometimes I Almost Agree With the Conspiracy Theorists

There's a theme in conspiracy theory that says that the United States government is totally controlled by shadowy forces - choose your favorite - and we, and our duly elected representatives, are simply acting out a script.

So today I will turn to something I usually leave to my friend the Armchair Generalist: the faux weapon of mass destruction. I see that he's got another white powder scare, too, but it's in Manchester, England, so it doesn't count in the same way as this Washington Post article on the WMD potential of Botox.

Actually, the article itself says that Botox, and even the dreaded botulinum bacterium, is not suitable for biological warfare. So no story, right? No, for some reason, an editor at the WaPo thought that Joby Warrick's ramblings about a non-threat deserved three Web pages and the headline "Officials fear toxic ingredient in Botox could become terrorist tool."

There's quite a bit about shadowy botulinum salesmen in Russia and its environs. Good for them, I say; keeps the potential buyers from getting something useful. And some of the time, it's even fake botulinum they're selling. Even better. And that's the lede to the article, which is supposed to set the tone, and, kudos to Joby Warrick, it actually does.

Warrick repeats the old chestnut about a gram of pure toxin potentially killing half the earth's population, or whatever. So I'll repeat that that can happen only if that gram is distributed to all those people, which is always the problem, and, since botulinum is very heat-sensitive, as Warrick notes later in the article, most state bioweapons programs gave it up long ago.

Here: I'll scare you even more. You can make this WMD in your very own kitchen!!!!! (Is that enough exclamation points?)

I learned to can foods as a girl. One of the big warnings was that less-acidy foods (meat, beans, pretty much anything not-pickles, not-tomatoes and not-jam) could develop botulinum poisoning. So you had to process them longer and, if they looked funny after standing for a while, throw them out. This led some of us to speculate whether one might leave a can of mayonnaise out to spoil and then throw it in the local reservoir to poison the users of that water. It seemed a scary prospect to a bunch of eight-year-olds.

But we also learned, as did the weapons researchers on tax money, that cooking foods thoroughly would destroy the toxin. So an added precaution was to cook canned non-acid foods for a while. This was back in the days when green beans were supposed to be mushy anyway.

I ducked the problem by sticking to jams, pickles and tomatoes.

But, but, but! Warrick did the research and needed a story. Or perhaps our sinister overlords decided we needed to be scared this week so that we wouldn't try to get health reform passed. So maybe, just maybe, the terrorists could throw a spoiled jar of mayonnaise in the ressy, or, or, something!
"We know al-Qaeda has talked about going after food supplies in the United States," the official said. "There are new reasons to be concerned about what they're going to target next."
Be afraid. Be very afraid.

If there is a conspiracy, they really need better propagandists.

Update: I see that the Armchair Generalist posted on this almost at the same time I did.

And Phila puts his spin on it.


Anonymous said...

"Warrick repeats the old chestnut about a gram of pure toxin potentially killing half the earth's population."

And a teenage boy has the capability [and intent] to fertilize all the world's women of child-bearing age.

Jesus, talk about hyping the threat.

J. said...

I like that analogy, anon. Hey cheryl, glad that we both arrived at the same consensus with independent analyses. Means we must be right... I meant to throw in the additional statement about how you can't really significantly contaminate the water supply (and probably not the food supply with a gram of toxin, at least), but it seemed like I had enough invectives to throw at the journalist.

MT said...

It's just common sense that if Al Qaeda invites you to a picnic, you don't accept, no matter what they're serving.