Slate has posted a shocking story by historian Deborah Blum, exposing long-forgotten efforts by the U.S. government to poison the alcohol supply during Prohibition for the express purpose of frightening would-be consumers of bootleg liquor into abstaining. She estimates that the government’s poisoning program killed more than 10,000 Americans before the “noble experiment” of Prohibition was abandoned in 1933.
The horrific episode is an abject lesson in the dangers of extreme Utilitarianism, in which unambiguous wrongs are deemed acceptable because of the great benefits they will create, or the greater wrongs they will prevent. It tells us that we should never trust those in power too much, because even good intentions and idealism can mutate into sinister and deadly forms. And it tells us that while we should be wary of conspiracy theories and our seemingly-paranoid fellow citizens who see malice and collusion in every misfortune, we must not dismiss them out of hand. Sometimes the conspiracies are real. Sometimes the paranoids are right.
Blum’s Slate piece is a sobering and frightening account that also raises questions about the holes in our historical record. There are surely other dark episodes in our nation’s history that we need to know about, understand, and learn from. In the meantime, we owe a debt of thanks to Deborah Blum.
By all means, read her article.