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Fentanyl in the air and suicide bombers in your town

Are we in danger from fentanyl and its related compounds as weapons of mass destruction? There is an interesting philosophy at work behind this question. The modern mind would probably answer an emphatic if nervous yes. The evidence? In 2002 in Russia, the so-called Moscow Theatre Hostage Crisis, a miscalculated coup took out the targeted rebels, but also 120 hostage, with carfentanil piped in through the ventilation [1]. A hundred people, twenty years ago… not much of an event on a global scale. But here’s what's interesting about disaster philosophy. Risk, by which so much of our modern society is governed, is not based on history, but on potential. And more, on the portrayal of potential. This is an overly simplistic takeaway from a brilliant treatise on our postmodern human condition [2]. The potential is measured more by drug busts than by mass poisonings. A kilo of carfentanil, seized at a Canadian border, has the potential to kill everyone in the entire nation [3]. Doesn’t matter that we don’t all share the same ventilation. That’s how our risk society thinks [see 2].

Photo by Warren Wong from

Chemical weapons, including opioids, in terrorist attacks, are “an increasing concern” [4, 5]. Increasing, ok. But does that mean it’s a big concern? I did some calculating. In a bad year (more recent, of course, because it’s increasing exponentially) there were some 20 chemical attacks globally. Let’s make the attacks biggish ones, affecting 100 people. And just for the sake of simplicity, let’s assume that I’m as much at risk in my relatively peaceful city as in conflict zones like Syria and Afghanistan. 7.9 billion people in the world. That means that I have an infinitesimally small chance of being affected. But again, as observed by Beck, it isn’t statistics that matter. It’s how the risk is portrayed. A number X 10E-7 is not comprehensible to human minds.

Suicide bombings are similarly increasing exponentially [6]. I won’t look at the statistics with this issue, I’m sure they’re similar to the previous issue. The philosophy behind this is interesting, and complicated [7]. Why does suicide bombing arouse such disapproval in so many people, especially in Western democratic countries? Some may argue that it is immoral to take one's own life, or to victimize innocent bystanders and not solely military targets, or insist the act is born of mental illness. These explanations are no more justified for this type of attack than in the less-criticized act of lobbing a bomb over your enemy’s border. It may come down to a sense of unfairness, that the suicide bomber is violating rules of engagement, at least rules that many Judeo-Christian cultures feel bound to.

Are you in danger? Increasingly, yes.

2. Beck U. World at risk. Polity; 2009

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