Monday, January 4, 2010


I just caught the last part of an interview this morning on CNN on the topic of terrorist attacks. Since this fellow seemed knowledgeable, and made sense, I knew he wasn't an American politician so I perked up and started to listen. He was explaining that al Qaeda, bin Laden's outfit, likes to plan attacks bigger and bloodier than their last attack. For them, 9/11 is a hard act to follow. But the bunch that sent the Crotch Bomber tm from Yemen, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) seems to be focusing on smaller operations like the Crotch Bomber tm. That's when the alarm bells started to go off in my head.

I've never really understood why we have placed so much anti-terror emphasis on preventing the big strike. Yes, the idea of another 9/11 type attack is horrible but, as we saw then, huge tragedies can bring us together as a nation. And such an attack can also stiffen our, and our allies, resolve. We can never know what might have happened after 9/11 if someone else had been in the White House, but clearly, for a time we, and the rest of the world were of one voice in our loathing of the terrorist group who brought this down upon us. So maybe big flashy attacks against the American homeland aren't such a good idea, if you're a terrorist. Maybe small, repeated attacks in multiple locations, like AQAP seem to be planning, are better at terrorizing a population.

And that brings us to the Tylenol Effect. In the Fall of 1982, in the Chicago suburbs, 7 people died from Tylenol capsules tainted with cyanide. This was no factory mix-up or contamination, this was premeditated murder. Bottles of capsules had been shoplifted, taken somewhere, tampered with and then placed back on store shelves. No one was ever caught and punished, but a few things did change.

For those of you younger than I (and that's a big bunch of folks, getting bigger every day) I offer a story which, at first, you might not believe. Once upon a time, when you twisted the top off of a jar of peanut butter, you saw....peanut butter. Not a paper seal, actual peanut butter. The same was true for grape jelly. And for bottles of aspirin and, yes, Tylenol. The poke and tear dance that we all do to get into products which we put in our mouths began with the Tylenol poisoning case. Prior to 1982 product tampering was nowhere on the radar. After Tylenol it was everywhere.

Now I know this doesn't sound like such a big thing, but stop and think a minute. Every single processed food or over the counter medicine you buy is in a sealed container. It's Federal Law. The huge sums expended to protect us from this threat are incalculable, but must be in the billions. Entire industries were created to satisfy the need for seals and guards and the adhesives to attach them. New factory machines and production steps needed to be created. This was a really big deal!

So what, then, is the Tylenol Effect? It is the very American response to bad things in the world. We go way overboard. We do everything in our power to see to it that any harm that happens, if caused by bad actors, can never happen again. Why do I add the part about "if caused by bad actors?" Because when it comes to natural disasters we aren't so motivated it seems. Witness the continuing poor response to Hurricane Katrina. Now compare that to our response to 9/11. We will spend just about any sum to try and stop the bad guys. Or bad guy. We will fight to open our sealed products forever because we think that will make us safer.

So what do we think would be this countries response to, say, ten terrorists, each with just three rocket propelled grenades, who each fired those RPGs  at so called soft targets on ten consecutive days? Ten days of shopping mall explosions? Or random vehicles exploding on the Interstates? Or power sub-stations blowing up putting thousands into blackouts? What would we do? We'd go absolutely nuts, that's what.

By the eleventh day there would be no one in the malls or on the Interstates. Commerce would lock up at every level. No one would risk their own life and certainly not the lives of their children. Employers wouldn't dare put their workers at risk (lawsuits you know) nor shop keepers their customers (more lawsuits). It would not be pretty. And that's just the commercial effects. What the government would do to try and keep us all safe would make today's airport security seem like a wave from the greeter at Walmart. Can you say martial law?

So I fervently hope that the bad guys continue to equate the USA with Israel. After more that 60 years of terrorist attacks, they still continue to continue. For all of it's failings in it's past and current dealings with the Palestinians, Israel is still a democratic nation that supports human rights and the rule of law. They have not been broken by terrorism. So, perhaps, the bad guys will think that we, too, would overcome the death by a thousands cuts of many small attacks, like the Israelis. Because if they ever figure out that instead we would probably respond with the Tylenol Effect, we could be in a world of hurt.

Just  thinking about this has given me a headache. I wonder if I can get into that new bottle of Tylenol?

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