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.