A suicide pill (also known as the cyanide pill, kill-pill, lethal pill, Death-pill, or L-pill) is a pill, capsule, ampoule or tablet containing a fatally poisonous substance that a person ingests deliberately in order to quickly cause his/her own life to end. This is normally done in order to avoid an imminent and far more unpleasant death (such as through torture) or to ensure that he/she cannot be interrogated and leak sensitive information. As a result, lethal pills have important psychological value to persons carrying out missions with a high risk of capture and interrogation. Their main advantage is that they can be concealed and evade detection more easily than other methods of suicide.
The concept of the suicide or poison pill does not limit itself to pills and actual death, but rather may lend itself in a colloquial manner to anything that has fatal or highly unpleasant consequences to something if deliberately done. Such a "poison pill" attempts to prevent a certain action or choice by killing the attractiveness of that choice, typically by damaging or ruining that option or thing should that choice ever be made. For example, a contract or company might contain a "poison pill" clause or provision that makes a certain scenario, such as a hostile takeover, unattractive or impossible.
Traditionally, lethal pills are oval capsules, approximately the size of a pea, consisting of a thin-walled glass ampoule covered in brown rubber (to protect against accidental breakage) and filled with a concentrated solution of potassium cyanide. Purpose-made lethal pills (of the rubber-coated type) are never swallowed whole: instead, they are first crushed between the user's molars to release the fast-acting poison contained within. Brain death occurs within minutes and the heartbeat stops shortly after.
The Central Intelligence Agency began experimenting with saxitoxin, an extremely potent neurotoxin, during the 1950s. According to CIA Director William Colby, a tiny saxitoxin-impregnated needle hidden inside a fake silver dollar was issued to Francis Gary Powers, an American U-2 pilot who was shot down while flying over the USSR in May 1960. Another method of suicide offered to U-2 pilots was a small glass ampule called the "L-pill" containing liquid potassium cyanide. Putting the pill in the mouth and biting down would cause death in 10 to 15 seconds, but most pilots chose to not take the "L-pill" with them.
- Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was forced to commit suicide with a cyanide pill following his implication in the July 20 plot against Hitler. Additionally, Eva Braun, and a number of leading Nazis, such as Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Göring, are known to have committed suicide using lethal pills containing a solution of cyanide salts.
- In 1985, serial killer Leonard Lake committed suicide using cyanide pills sewn into his clothes after he was arrested for possessing a suppressor and an unregistered handgun, knowing that further investigation into his life would uncover his more serious crimes.
- In 1987, two North Korean Agents bit into ampules hidden in the filter tips of cigarettes after they were detained in Bahrain as suspects in an airplane bombing. One agent died.
- During the Sri Lankan Civil War between 1987 and 2009, the separatist suicide bombers of the Tamil Tigers wore a potassium cyanide necklace. If they were captured by the Sri Lanka Army, they would bite into the tablet at the end of the necklace. In addition to suicide bombers, since 1976 almost all separatists of this organization wore suicide pills. This is the most modern day wide scale use of potassium cyanide as a suicide tool. The women were the most publicized, carrying a tablet adhered to their tooth.
In economics, a suicide pill is a form of risk arbitrage used by corporations to thwart hostile takeover attempts. As an extreme version of the poison pill defense, this crippling provision refers to any technique used by a target firm in which takeover protection could result in self-destruction.
A widely held myth asserts that astronauts carry suicide pills in case they are unable to return to Earth. This was disputed by astronaut Jim Lovell, who co-wrote Lost Moon (later renamed Apollo 13). Considering the fact that marooned astronauts could easily commit suicide by simply venting the air from their spacecraft or suits, such a pill would not likely be necessary.
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- Don Oberdorfer (5 December 2001). The two Koreas: a contemporary history. Basic Books. p. 184. ISBN 978-0-465-05162-5. Retrieved 6 December 2011.
- John Emsley. Molecules of murder: criminal molecules and classic cases. ISBN 978-0-85404-965-3.
- Robert Zemeckis, Steve Starkey, Contact DVD audio commentary, 1997, Warner Home Video