Atlantic Monthly

The Las Vegas Treat

Extracting ricin — so potent that a single drop could kill you and your whole family — isn’t difficult, which is why a man with obvious social handicaps and no relevant training apparently succeeded in producing enough to poison himself half to death. Governments have made breathless claims about Al Qaeda’s desire to weaponize the chemical, and the dubious success of this poor man’s homebrew will stoke the fears of the stokeable.

My reaction: It’s good that the guy has a hobby. I hope Al Qaeda’s hobby is the same. Ricin is, first of all, one of the more pitifully ineffective chem-bio agents — botulin, sarin, and anthrax are much worse. But even if Al Qaeda produced those, their scientists would be far more likely to poison and kill themselves than to poison and kill others.

The recipe for ricin has been publicly available since 1962 (amateur chefs, click here), and almost no one has died by malicious ricin poisoning. Even if they were capable of buying ricin off the shelf, they’d have to figure out a way to inject or spray victims with the stuff, and anyone who’d submit to an injection or puff of mist from a stranger on the street probably would be easy to kill by conventional means anyway. Let us hope that Al Qaeda is following the fearmongers’ cue and ordering chemistry sets through the post right now, rather than conventional weapons available for the same price.

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