In ancient Greek mythology, Pandora was the first woman. And, like Eve, the first woman in the much more recently written Judeo-Christian mythos, Pandora was responsible for changing the world.
Eve ate her apple, having been prompted by a serpent, and Pandora opened her pithos, a large, ancient Greek earthenware storage vessel, having been prompted by her own curiosity. And just as Eve couldn’t simply spit out her bite of apple and return knowledge and the need for modesty, Pandora couldn’t manage to return the evil she unleashed to her pithos and close it. While you might never have heard of Pandora’s Pithos, you’ve probably heard of Pandora’s Box, the substitution due to confusion in translation.
The phrase, “to open Pandora’s Box,” is used to refer to any series of acts and actions which changes the world – always for the worse and in such a way that it can never be changed back.
There are many examples of this sort of thing but the best example we can think of involves product packaging in the USA and most other countries, something which changed greatly for the worse and probably forever. From a time long before this country was founded, products were sold either unpackaged or in simple packaging. Until 1899, with the advent of National Biscuit Company’s Uneeda Biscuit, in the airtight, sanitary wrapper, most goods were sold in bulk, with even commercial cookies and crackers sold from cracker barrels. Modern retail packaging at the time was somewhat more sanitary than bulk sales from barrels, but even when foodstuffs and over-the-counter medications were packaged at the factory, the packages were easy to open and, even more important, their safety was trusted implicitly for the consuming public also trusted the honor of the manufacturers.
Then, in September of 1982, an unknown person or persons in the greater Chicago metropolitan area bought approximately seven bottles of Extra Strength Tylenol capsules from various drug stores and supermarkets, took them home, opened some of the capsules, dumped out the acetaminophen and replaced it with a powder containing cyanide of potassium, a deadly poison. These bottles were then purchased and, over a two month period, seven innocent people died of cyanide poisoning.
An investigation concluded that the manufacturer, the McNeil Pharmaceuticals division of Johnson & Johnson, was not responsible as the bottles had come from different factories and lots, and the contents had apparently been tampered with locally. But, of course, Johnson & Johnson mounted a massive recall, which cost them roughly two hundred forty million of today’s dollars, replaced Tylenol capsules with “caplets” (capsule-shaped tablets) and immediately ceased the manufacture of all over-the-counter products in capsules. Forever. The only capsules they sell, now, are “gelcaps,” which are caplets with a gelatine coating and cannot be opened as gelatine capsules can.
Within just a few months manufacturers of packaged food and pharmaceuticals began to use so-called “tamper resistant” packaging, which, for pharmaceuticals, generally includes an inner seal and an imprinted outer seal around the lid. At least one manufacturer, GSK, uses an imprinted cardboard inner seal which cannot be removed without a sharp tool, almost as if they wish to punish the consumer for the sins of the Tylenol poisoner over thirty years ago.
Now, nearly everything we buy is sealed beyond what is generally necessary. Despite the fact that we still trust manufacturers in most cases, we can no longer trust the honor of the public at large in this regard, even as we trusted each other for centuries.
And then, Pandora released assault weapons from her pithos. When this country was founded there was no cartridge ammunition and no percussion caps, but there were plenty of guns. These were referred to as flintlocks and included pistols, muskets (long guns with a smooth barrel) and rifles (long guns with a spiral-cut barrel interior to impart spin to the projectile). They were manually loaded with gun powder, wadding and projectile, normally a lead ball, the entire load tamped down with a ramrod. The minimum time to load a gun for a single shot was about fifteen seconds, though this took much longer in general practice. These were the personal arms used for war at the time and were the state of the art. Their legal use for hunting and self defense was generally unrestricted, and there was very little interpersonal gun violence. In rural areas, citizens often carried guns on their person and, most likely, no one thought anything of it as the level of honor in the society made it nearly unthinkable to shoot innocents.
The invention of cartridge ammunition, percussion cap ignition and, of course, the Colt revolver changed this dynamic greatly. But until recently, the only sorts of firearms generally owned by citizens were shotguns and rifles for hunting and target practice and revolvers and semi-automatic pistols for defense and target practice. For whatever reason, when early restrictions were placed on the use of these guns, most gun owners happily complied, for following these restrictions did not impact the desired use of their guns. Yes, there were plenty of gun-related deaths due to accident and rage, but not enough to wake the nation to action.
Then, in the 1970s, Pandora’s box was opened once again – this time by America’s firearms manufacturers and importers when they started to market semi-automatic assault rifles, loosely based upon military designs, to the general public. Why they did this is far from clear, but the obvious reason is profit. One theory is that their profits were down due to the gradual decline in the popularity of game hunting and they needed a product which could be manufactured cheaply enough to sell to almost any gun enthusiast and, of course, a product which would stimulate their latent enthusiasm. By 1994 millions of these had been sold and a controversial federal law was passed which banned the manufacture, import and purchase of these pseudo-military weapons to the general public. This ban lasted ten years until being allowed to expire under George W. Bush’s watch, and since 2004 it’s as if a dam had burst and these weapons are everywhere. They’re not suitable nor sporting for hunting and have no use aside from killing people and generally causing mayhem for the sheer fun of it.
One of these, of course, is the assault rifle, a Bushmaster XM-15, purchased legally by Nancy Lanza, for no purpose yet revealed, and used by her son, Adam, to kill her, himself, six more adults and twenty first grade students. We will probably never know why Adam Lanza did this, but it’s pretty clear that he wasn’t mentally stable. But if there were no available assault weapons, how many people could he have killed? Yes, of course, Lanza was more responsible for these murders than the gun, itself, which can be modified with a large rubber band or file to fire completely automatically, like a machine gun, at around ten shots per second. Yes, guns, themselves, are not responsible but the manufacturers of these guns, and their enabler, the NRA, with greed as their motive, are just as responsible, in our view, as the shooters who misuse them.
Now, all we have to do is get these frightful things back in Pandora’s Box.
Art-itorial by Barbara Broido. Visit Barbara’s Doodle Blog for more of her art, design work and socio-political commentary.