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Chem/Bio Warfare

A Fire, And Its Flames

The Washington Post ran an article the other day on a home-grown ricin lab in Paris. It’s disturbing reading, and it just goes to show how easy the stuff is to make. (I discussed ricin most recently here.)

Mind you, we don’t know how good Menand Benchellali’s ricin was, or what his batch-to-batch quality control was like, and that’s because no one really knows how much of the damn stuff he made or where it all went. Here’s hoping his lab technique was terrible, because his subsequent survival would then mean that the stuff wasn’t very clean. Being careless around high-quality biotoxins does not make for a long-term career.

Some bloggers quote poems on Fridays. This brings a grim one to mind, unfortunately, which Kingsley Amis pointed out must be one of the only completely serious parodies in English. Starting off from Yeats’s “Song of Wandering Aengus”, which you should probably read first if you’re not familiar with it, a 1974 IRA bombing inspired Roger Woddis to compose:

The Hero
I went out to the city streets
Because a fire was in my head
And saw the people passing by
And wished the smallest of them dead,
And twisted by a bitter past,
And poisoned by a cold despair,
I found at last a resting place
And left my hatred ticking there.

When I was fleeing from the night
And sweating in my room again,
I heard the old futilities
Exploding like a cry of pain;
But horror, should it touch the heart,
Would freeze my hand upon the fuse,
And I must shed no tears for those
Who merely have a life to lose.

Though I am sick with murdering
Though killing is my native land,
I will find out where death has gone,
And kiss his lips and take his hand;
And hide among the withered grass,
And pluck, till love and life are done,
The shrivelled apples of the moon,
The cankered apples of the sun.

I hate to leave everyone for the weekend with thoughts like this, but others are spending their waking hours having far worse ones. Reader, are you a scientist yourself? Do you spend your days going wherever your curiosity takes you, reading what you want to and thinking what you want to think? Not to be crude about it, but it’s people like Menand Benchellali, or it’s us.

9 comments on “A Fire, And Its Flames”

  1. Hi there Dave,
    You are partly right, but just like most people not completely.
    Menand Benchellali (whom I know next to nothing about) may very well be a bigoted terrorist. One of the tortured people the poem speaks of. Then again, the poem explains exactly why such people end up with sick minds, even though there is no excuse for killing the innocent. But then, why is it OK to kill the innocent living in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine if it isn’t OK to kill them in The Neterlands, the USA or Israel?
    If we want to the right to think and speak freely then we must first make sure that tortured people get help. That their torture is prevented as much as possible. That we follow every rule we wish them to follow.
    Currently the USA is a country which claims to speak for the free. A country which does many wrong things although they claim it’s for the right reasons. And after the dust has settled and the “enemies of the free world” have been wiped out by main force, the USA expects the tortured people to fend for themselves. In fact it expects them to become just like the USA claims to be, free and happy!
    Well, I’m one of the free and I say not in my name. The USA is going where lots of world-powers have gone before. History shows that unless you show true compassion all you end up with is a warped society which has lost it’s previous identity and all it’s rules and regulations. Limited though they might have been these rules kept a certain check on those societies.
    Unless we freethinkers reign in the bigots (even by e.g. limiting their free speach) in our own countries. Unless we prevent them from becoming warders in prisons in Iraq where they subsequently flout the rules of humanity. Unless we give everyone the fair trial we insist on for ourselves (I’m thinking of Guantanamo Bay). Unless in short we ACT like the humane society we purport to be, how then can we ask the rest of the world to trust us and follow our ways?
    Do as I say, not as I do doesn’t cut it you see….

  2. Klug says:

    That’s terrifying, really.
    You know, I joke about how there’s no such thing as an “emergency chemist.” (I’ve always thought that would make a good TV show or somethin’.) After reading that post, maybe I’m glad there isn’t.

  3. icarus says:

    hi dave, welcome to the freethinkers’ club. rules packet to follow shortly.

  4. Derek Lowe says:

    Well, I don’t comment on politics much on this blog, but every so often I boil over. I hold to my contention that a person who sits in a room making ricin, with the intent to use it to sow as much fear and destruction as possible, is an enemy of mankind.
    Nick, I doubt if a point-by-point exchange with you would have much chance of convincing either of us. You’re correct about the danger of “becoming what you behold”, and that’s something that a society has to be constantly watching for.
    But, as an American, I think that if we made it through the Civil War, the First and Second World Wars, Korea and Vietnam, most of which featured far more worrisome behavior (both domestic and on the battlefield), then we’ll make it through this, too.
    But it’s true, this week is a particularly hard one in which to wave the US flag. The only thing I can hope for is that we can try to set an example in the way we deal with the people responsible. That’s another thing about the US – when we have a scandal, we generally haul it right out in front of everyone.

  5. Although I generally try not to get bogged down in side-discussions I’ll post one more comment here.
    I agree (and stated) that peoepl who try to kill innocents are plain wrong. I agree they are “the enemy”, I question whether we are any better when we also kill (many more) innocents by causing “collateral damage”.
    I also agree that the USA is a great country and that it contains many great people. I don’t quite agree that it’s as great as many US leaders make it out to be (the same goes for Holland and it’s leaders by the way). Like all great countries the USA also contains many bad people. The real measure of greatness is whether you manage to successfully control them.
    I sincerely hope that in this instance the USA will manage to reign the animals back in after having “let slip it’s dogs of war” (to loosely quote something appropriate). You have indeed successfully survived problems in the past. This time however is the first in over a century that the problem also exists INSIDE the USA. This then directly threatens the operation of your institutions from within.
    The question which I also pose on my own site is “will you (and we) ever learn not to make these mistakes again?”
    As Dave states above, similar/worse stuff happened not too long ago. Now it happens again…

  6. jsinger says:

    Nick — while I’d disagree with some of your points, the reaction I had to what Derek was getting at was a bit different: What strikes me about Benchelalli (and Mohammed Atta and bin Laden and…) is that they use technology invented by other societies to attack those cultures for precisely the qualities that made discovery possible.

  7. Nick henriquez says:

    You hit the nail on the head jsinger. But then if you warp words successfully this was predicted:
    “those who wield the sword will fall by it”
    However, THEY invented a lot of it (if they is the right term here). When “the west” was not even a glint in the eye of anyone calculus and many other things we scientists use were discovered in eastern and Far-Eastern cultures. They even invented “0” and what sort of science can one do witout zero?
    The problem remains that anything can be used for bad as well as good. This means that those who love freedom should behave ethically to prevent others from feeling and BEING exploited.

  8. MakeMineRed says:

    Nick, you’re blind. Not partly, but completely. Your country has fed you a steady anti-American diet that aims not to instruct but to destroy. Grow up and learn to think for yourself.

  9. Hi MakeMineRed,
    There seems to be some misunderstanding. The Neterlands is one of the “coalition of the willing” and as a country is in majority in favour of the USA and it’s current policies. So at least my country cannot be blamed for any blindness on my part (perceived or true).
    Nor are the media in my country aimed at destruction. In fact they go very far in attempting to draw in facts and views from as many camps as possible to let the reader/viewer make up their own mind.

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