Total Security = Total Paralysis

The Register (slogan “Biting the Hand that Feeds I.T.) is one of my favorite news sources on IT related matters. Skeptical, sarcastic, they do not suffer fools lightly. Today reading their rss feed, I came across this article: DHS: beware stink-bomb touting terrorists

Unusual paranoia over chemical attack in the US takes many forms. It can be seen in a recent piece of trouble from the Department of Homeland Security, a long list of “chemicals of interest” it wishes to require all university settings to inventory.

“Academic institutions across the country claim they will have to spend countless hours and scarce resources on documenting very small amounts of chemicals in many different labs that are scattered across sometimes sprawling campuses,” reported a recent Chemical & Engineering News, the publication of the American Chemical Society.

“For 104 chemicals on the list, the threshold is ‘any amount.'”

An update to address university workload concerns is said to be scheduled for “early to mid-June.”

Another compound in the “any amount” catch all is hydrogen sulfide, the toxic gas that smells like rotten eggs.

Functionally, generating “any amounts” of hydrogen sulfide has always been part of an education in chemistry. Believe it or not, there was a time when generation of it was included as a spark to an interest in chemistry in children’s store bought chemistry sets.

However, in the past fifteen years we’ve had the pleasure of publication of a number of poisons for ninnies books, among them Maxwell Hutchkinson’s “The Poisoner’s Handbook,” published by Loompanics in 1988. Much of Hutchkinson was subsequently plagiarized into jihadist documents on chemical terror, among these being Abdel-Aziz’s Mujahideen Poisons Handbook, which if found during terror investigations functionally works toward ensuring a stay in the dungeon for owners.

The Mujahideen Poisons Handbook contains an old hydrogen sulfide producing experiment. “It is very dangerous,” its author states, not particularly accurately. “It can kill a person in thirty seconds.”
Instead of meditating on the naiveté of the uneducated man who has never had a chemistry set, since 9/11 we have instead been plagued by terror assessors who are not chemists, mucking with regulation through the offices of DHS’s science directorate.

To make the weirdness of this clear, hydrogen sulfide – like almost everything in the Mujahideen Poisons Handbook, goes back to the materials in The Poisoner’s Handbook.

“The manufacture of hydrogen sulfide is [simple],” writes Hutchkinson. “It is created by water coming into contact with phosphorus pentasulfide.”

This is actually true, unlike many things in terrorist poison handbooks. On the DHS list, phosphorus pentasulfide is only of interest if a university has a ton of it. Hydrogen sulfide, any amount. Phosphorus pentasulfide, one ton. Looking for logic becomes like trying to pick up spilled mercury.

It is easy to simply mock the DHS as being staffed by incompetent fools. However, I think this essay demonstrates the flaw inherent in socialized security systems. While these chemicals can be used to kill human beings, they are also used for numerous beneficial purposes. They appear in numerous manufacturing processes. To prevent their misuse, the government must interfere with all uses. Given the myriad ways that a human being can kill large numbers of his fellows, the attempts to lock-down all possible methods requires locking down or closely supervising a significant portion of human activity. The more tightly the government tries to control what people are doing, the more paralyzed the society becomes.

In the end, people must take personal responsibility for their own security. Socialized security, like any socialized system, is bound to be inflexible and provide poor service.


I am an anarcho-capitalist living just west of Boston Massachussetts. I am married, have two children, and am trying to start my own computer consulting company.
  • VRB

    If only I could find an Arab speaking person and have them spy for me for free.

    I just don’t understand how an individual could protect oneself from terrorist other than what one ordinarily does to protect oneself from harm.

    I do think Homeland Security should not have been a department just a coordinating agency. I would have thought the President should have had enough clout to keep the CIA, Military Intelligence and the FBI in line.

  • Steve S.

    I just don’t understand how an individual could protect oneself from terrorist other than what one ordinarily does to protect oneself from harm.

    I don’t think I can say it any better than Bruce Schneier does here:

    The surest defense against terrorism is to refuse to be terrorized. Our job is to recognize that terrorism is just one of the risks we face, and not a particularly common one at that. And our job is to fight those politicians who use fear as an excuse to take away our liberties and promote security theater that wastes money and doesn’t make us any safer.