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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 2nd October 2011

“When the President does it that means it is not illegal”. As anyone with any interest in the USA’s late 20th century history will know, these are the words of former president Richard Nixon when being interviewed by David Frost on May 20th 1977.

By one of those strange coincidences, the BBC broadcast a programme about the recording of the interviews and showed the film ‘Frost/Nixon’ on the day that President Obama seemed to be taking that same line over the killing of two American citizens, Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan in a drone attack in Yemen.

The central point seems to be whether or not the USA is at war with Al Qaeda. If it is, then killing enemy combatants is perfectly OK regardless of their nationality. If it isn’t, then this is summary execution without trial of people who should have enjoyed the protection of the American constitution. And, so far, it seems that President Obama is the one who decides which of those two situations is true.

I’m not blogging about this because I’m interested in the moral dilemmas involved in dealing with bad people without making yourself bad, though that is something that has interested me since the 1970s and the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. My concern is the way that rumour is morphing into fact as a way of justifying these killings.

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

On 25th August, I blogged about a book promotion in the New York Times masquerading as a news story about another terrorist threat from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The claim was that AQAP were attempting to obtain enough castor beans to make enough ricin to build ‘dirty’ bombs that would spread ricin across a wide area causing large scale deaths.

Now, to be fair to the New York Times, though I’m not sure why since, as I said, it didn’t have the decency to point out that the reporters named for the story were the authors of a book being published the same week, its report was full of caveats. Quotes like, ‘Al Qaeda is trying to produce the lethal poison ricin’, ‘making efforts to acquire large quantities of castor beans’, ‘there is no indication that a ricin attack is imminent’ and ‘[AQAP] is still struggling with how to deploy ricin’ (emphasis added) show that the NYT was not saying that such a plot existed and was a real threat.

In that previous blog I pointed out that, in the re-reporting by other papers, especially those in the UK, the caveats tended to be reduced or completely removed so that it appeared that AQAP were ready to launch ‘ricin bomb’ attacks and that such attacks would be successful. I pointed out how ridiculous such claims were given the true nature of the poison ricin, obtained from Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant.

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

I’ve returned to it, today, because some of those voicing their support for the killings are stating as fact that ricin attacks have been averted as a result. Fox News, for example, reports ‘The terror leader specifically sought to use poisons including cyanide and ricin’ citing a ‘senior U.S. official’ as its source. According to Reuters ‘The U.S. government also learned that Awlaki sought to use poisons including cyanide and ricin to attack Westerners’ also citing a ‘senior U.S. official’ but who knows if this is the same person as relied on by Fox.

And, of course, added to these mainstream reports are the numerous comments from people who are so far away from reality they'd be too unbelievable to be included in a 'Doctor Who' plot. I've even read one claim that 'the entire east coast' of the USA was about to be obliterated by a ricin bomb.

The thing is we’ve been here before. In 2003, police raiding a property in East London discovered a substance thought to be ricin. It turned out not to be ricin and all but one of the men involved in the alleged plot were either found not guilty or released, after a long period of detention. But, by the time Chinese Whispers had enhanced the story, whether intentionally or just because that is what Chinese Whispers do, Colin Powell told the UN that this 'ricin plot' had been linked to Iraq and was further evidence that action had to be taken against Saddam Hussain. And still, years after and in spite of the excellent book ‘Ricin!: The Inside Story of the Terror Plot That Never Was’ by Laurence Archer and Fiona Bawdon, you will find references to the ‘2003 ricin plot’ whenever the subject is raised.

I don’t know if these killings were legal or justified and whether the world is a safer place as a result but I am sure that, for years to come, we’ll read that Anwar al-Awlaki was killed because he was about to launch ricin bomb attacks in the USA. And I find that just a little bit depressing.