I’ve heard of the Scoville scale, which measures the potency of spicy peppers. Those boring green bell peppers get a 0; habaneros get a score of 350,000.

The stuff those UC Davis police officers so casually hosed into the faces of peacefully demonstrating students? between 2,000,000 and 5,300,000 Scoville units.

But we’ve taken to calling it pepper spray, I think, because that makes it sound so much more benign than it really is, like something just a grade or so above what we might mix up in a home kitchen. The description hints maybe at that eye-stinging effect that the cook occasionally experiences when making something like a jalapeno-based salsa, a little burn, nothing too serious.

Until you look it up on the Scoville scale and remember, as toxicologists love to point out, that the dose makes the poison. That we’re not talking about cookery but a potent blast of chemistry. So that if OC spray is the U.S. police response of choice – and certainly, it’s been used with dismaying enthusiasm during the Occupy protests nationwide, as documented in this excellent Atlantic roundup – it may be time to demand a more serious look at the risks involved.

Their goal is to cause intense pain. Where has the police gotten this bizarre idea that somehow inducing agony in protesters is somehow humane or reasonable?

(Also on FtB)