Bitter realities

Orly Mercado

Posted on December 3, 2006

The taste of poison

It comes to you slowly as you age. I have started drinking my coffee black and have even gotten to like my yoghurt without anything to sweeten it. Can’t have enough of bitter chocolates. There is no denying that sensory changes come with age. It is said that our ancestors developed their bitter taste receptors to protect themselves from the toxins in the plants that they ate. In time things changed. We learned how to remove the bitter taste in the vegetables we eat. Some chefs here in Japan have honed fine skills in removing the deadly toxins from puffer fish. It is a favorite winter delicacy. Fugu sashimi or sushi is an experience. It is said that the toxins in this fish can kill in minutes.

I have been following the developments in the intriguing death by poisoning of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in a sushi bar in Picadilly. I could not help but think of the simple days when our ancestors survived by merely spitting out what tasted bitter. Of course, today, things are no longer that simple. Exactly how Litvinenko ingested the highly radioactive substance polonium 210 is still unclear. But what is clear are the traces of radioactivity in various sites around London including five planes.

Experts say that Polonium 210 is something one mad scientist cannot produce in his basement laboratory. To be used as a lethal weapon, the drug is just too complicated to produce except in a state enterprise of countries with nuclear capability.

By the very nature of espionage, most assume that cruel tactics are to be expected. Spy stories have glamorized the way spies “terminate” their adversaries. But there is nothing glamorous in Litvinenko’s painful and slow death. Moreover, the chilling effect of this assassination is stronger than any snow storm out of Siberia. From Leon Trotsky’s fate in the hands of a hammer-wielding assassin almost a century ago, to today’s methods, that seem to come straight out of a James Bond movie, the only rule in politically motivated assassinations seems to be the rule that there are no rules.

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