Saturday, May 14, 2011

2009 “Chemical Weapon Attack” in Tucson

Yesterday the FBI arrested a ‘Tucson businessman’ for a 2009 chemical weapon attack on a couple in Tucson, AZ.

The Attack

According to the FBI press release “Fries placed chemical devices in the front and back yard of a couple living on the northwest side of Tucson. When ignited, the devices produced a football field-sized cloud of chlorine gas that hovered over the neighborhood and resulted in the evacuation of numerous families in the area.”

According to a news report from a couple of days after the attack, “Investigators said Sunday's incident in Tucson included derogatory graffiti written in Spanish [NOTE: it was actually German]; dead animals; an incendiary device; and chlorine tablets covered in an unknown liquid that created a large toxic-gas cloud.”

Interestingly a copy of the police report from the initial officer on the scene mentions nothing about a ‘toxic cloud’ or ‘chemical weapons’ or even the odor of chlorine, a very distinctive and irritating odor even at low, sub-lethal concentrations.

The Device

It looks like the perpetrator used a very simple ‘chemical weapon’; a pile of ‘chlorine tablet’ (actually sodium hypochlorite) available from Wal-Mart or any pool supply store. The chemical reaction was not started by an ‘ignition source’ (someone PLEASE help the FBI with their technical descriptions) but by simply pouring an ‘unidentified’ liquid {which could have been anything from a household ammonia-cleaner (probably not; that reacts too fast and you’re in the cloud before you’re done pouring) to Coca-Cola to simple tap water with a little bit of vinegar}on the tablets.

It would have had to have been a very large pile of commercial hypochlorite tablets to produce a ‘toxic’ cloud the size of a football field. Since there are no reports of injuries or hospitalizations I would assume that at most it was an irritating cloud not a toxic cloud. It wasn’t even that irritating when the initial officer on the scene did not even notice it nor did any of the witness statements found in press accounts mention it.

WMD Overreaction

In a confined space where the concentration could reach lethal levels or even levels that could just cause serious medical consequences (damaged lungs, eyes, etc) I suppose that one might consider this ‘hypochlorite’ attack to be a weapon of mass destruction or a chemical weapon. Jason Siggers of the late Armchair Generalist blog would be proud that the FBI applied a chemical weapons charge against an inept white man; he had reported on numerous occasions that WMD type charges only appeared to be filed by the FBI against non-whites or Muslims.

Lets face it; this was not a ‘chemical weapon attack’ any more than the dead animals or feces smeared across the scene were a bio-weapon attack (though they were more likely to do harm than the ‘chlorine gas’ at these low concentration levels). Charge him with a hate crime? Absolutely. Charge him with criminal mischief? Yes, multiple charges. Charge him with criminal stupidity? Surely there must be such a charge on the books somewhere. But PLEASE, charging him with making and using a chemical weapon (two separate offenses)? That is nothing but political grandstanding on the part of the FBI and the Federal Prosecutor.

Potential Threat

The basic chemical reaction used in this case could certainly be used to manufacture an effective chemical weapon. It would take much more sophistication than a pile of pool chlorine tablets on the front lawn to be effective however. There are, in fact, a large number of relatively simple chemical reactions that can produce toxic gasses, reactions that use similarly unregulated, commercially available chemicals.

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