The improbable power of pee and pepper

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More than once over the past year, the full force of this communitys emergency apparatus has been mobilized in response to incidents that turned out to be less threatening than originally feared, yet quite disturbing in other ways.

Whoever made the rounds at Wal-Mart and Taco Bell over the past weekend spritzing people with suspected pepper spray brought back memories of last years scare at the state Centralized Laboratory facility where a malodorous substance found sprinkled over office furniture and plants turned out to be nothing more than deer urine, commonly used by hunters to attract bucks. Of course, that fact was probably not totally certain when the first calls went out for the hazardous-materials response team, which prudently donned its moon suits for the operation.

Similar uncertainties arose Saturday when emergency dispatchers were notified of people suffering respiratory problems, watery eyes and itchy throats at the Taco Bell in Poplar Creek Plaza. Such problems later popped up at the nearby Wal-Mart Superstore. Pepper spray incidents had been reported the previous two days at the restaurant, so perhaps it was not a total shock. Small consolation to the eight people who were taken to the hospital.

To be sure, both the pepper caper and the urine affair quickly progressed from potential disaster to bathos. But the risk that either could have ended tragically should not be dismissed. Suppose there had been an accident involving fire trucks or ambulances heading to the scene, as has been known to happen in the frantic rush to reach emergency scenes. What if the pepper spray attacker had targeted someone whose frail health led to life-threatening consequences?

Moreover, theres the matter of the money. The lab incident cost the taxpayers thousands of dollars which evidently will not be recovered from the perpetrator. Every time the fire trucks roll, the money meter is running, too.

Its still unclear if these episodes can be classified as personal vendettas or someones demented idea of a practical joke. In the latter case, the miscreants need to be reminded that this nation has undergone a serious loss of innocence in the nearly five years since Sept. 11. Anyone who gets a giggle out of causing pain or anxiety to others should be apprehended and forced to pay dearly for the gratification.

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