Ask yourself this: Do you know the name of any one of the people killed in the West Chemical and Fertilizer Company disaster? Do you know how many of them there were? Their ages, aspirations, what they looked like, whether they left behind children or what messages they last posted on Facebook? Do you know what the cause of the explosion was? Or if investigators are still searching for an explanation?
You probably don’t know the answer to any of these questions, and I didn’t either until I started writing this. I didn’t know that officials have confirmed fourteen deaths, twelve of whom were first responders. I didn’t know the name Jerry Chapman, 26, who volunteered with the Abbott Fire Company and who, according to his girlfriend Gina Rodriguez, was training to be an EMT. I didn’t know the name Cody Dragoo, 50, who was both an employee of the fertilizer plant and a West firefighter (the town has an all-volunteer force). And I had never heard of West firefighter Morris Bridges, 41, who lived just a few doors down from the facility and whose 18-year-old son, Brent Bridges, stood in the yard as the blast that killed his father blew out the windows of their home.
I do know, however, the names and faces of Sean Collier, Krystle Campbell, Martin Richard and Lu Lingzhi. I know that Sean, 26, had been on the MIT police force for a little more than a year when he was allegedly shot by Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev; that Lu was a Chinese national studying at Boston University; that Krystle was a regular Boston Marathon watcher; and that Martin was just 8 years old and had recently made a sign that read No More Hurting People Peace. I’ve seen the photo of him holding, with obvious pride and joy, those words drawn on a sheet of blue construction paper more than a dozen times. I can’t get away from it on Facebook, and when it shows up on my feed, I can’t look away.
What separates these two groups of victims from each other? Surely not innocence, for they were all innocent, and deserve to be mourned. And yet the blunt and awful truth is that, as a nation, we pay orders of magnitude more attention to the victims of terrorism than we do to the more than 4,500 Americans killed each year while on the job. As former Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis once put it, “Every day in America, twelve people go to work and never come home.” Very little is ever said in public about the vast majority of these violent and unnecessary deaths. And even when a spectacular tragedy manages to capture our collective attention—as the West explosion briefly did, and as the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster did three years before—it is inconceivable that such an event would be considered a permanent emergency of world-historic proportions.
Let’s imagine that they were, as many already consider the Boston Marathon bombing to be. Let’s imagine that instead of sending a handful of investigators from the ATF and the Chemical Safety Board to West, Texas, we marshaled every local, state and federal resource available to discover the exact sequence of events that led to the explosion. Let’s imagine that a single question—Why?—became so urgent that the nation simply could not rest until it had overdetermined the answers.
We’d discover that the plant had recently been storing 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, which is 1,350 times the amount required to trigger Department of Homeland Security oversight, but that the plant had failed to report its holdings to the agency. We’d find that the plant had violated at least six different federal and state regulations over the past decade, paying minimal fines, and that OSHA hadn’t inspected the facility since 1985. Did this loose regulatory regime play a role in the disaster? If we conclude that safety violations led to the explosion, we might find the company that owns the plant, Adair Grain, negligent and culpable. But would we ascribe an ideology to its actions? If so, which ideology would we indict? Deregulation? Austerity? Capitalism? Would we write headlines that say Officials Seek Motive in Texas Fertilizer Explosion? And could we name “profit” as that motive in the same way that we might name, say, “Islam” as the motive for terrorism? Would we arrest the plant’s owners, deny them their Miranda rights and seek to try them in extralegal tribunals outside the Constitution, as Senator Lindsey Graham suggested we do with US citizen Dzhokhar Tsarnaev? Would we call for a ban on the production of ammonium nitrate and anhydrous ammonia? Would we say that “gaps and loopholes” in our nation’s agricultural policies were responsible for the tragedy, as Senator Chuck Grassley suggested about immigration in the Boston bombing case?
No, we wouldn’t. We won’t do any of these things, because even if the West fertilizer plant disaster is ultimately understood as something more than “just an accident,” it will still be taken as the presumed cost of living in a modern industrialized society.
When it comes to terrorism, we have the opposite response. We launch wars against other countries, suspend the Constitution, and create massive state bureaucracies for espionage, covert operations and assassinations. Since 9/11, it’s become a political imperative that our nation must go to any lengths, no matter how extreme, to combat terrorism, even though, like workplace fatalities, terrorism has been with us long before globalization lent it a more exotic and threatening provenance.
In our response to the problem of violence, there ought to be a path between callous indifference and total social warfare. And that’s why the miserable and absolute failure of gun control legislation in the Senate—just two days after the Boston Marathon bombing and on the same day of the West fertilizer plant explosion—was especially galling. Like acts of terrorism, the murderous rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School precipitated a national crisis. In the wake of that tragedy, our collective grief took a particular shape, the shape of democracy. The deaths of those schoolchildren were linked to the fate of more than 30,000 victims of gun violence each year, and the impulse to act was channeled through our democratic system, where an overwhelming majority of Americans and a majority of the Senate expressed support for new gun laws, which were defeated nonetheless.
It’s recently become a right-wing talking point that just 4 percent of Americans think gun control is the “most important problem facing the nation today.” Implicit in this commentary is the idea that because gun violence isn’t seen as the single most urgent issue, it isn’t an issue at all; that as workplace fatalities are to a modern economy, so gun violence is to the Second Amendment—just a cost we all should get used to.
So America, here’s your scorecard for the week of April 15, 2013: callous indifference: 2, total warfare: 1.
Child labor laws have been under attack in various states, Michelle Chen reported early last year.