I. West, Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion. At least 12 people confirmed dead, more expected. 180 people injured, many critically. Extensive damage (in some cases, destruction) to buildings within a five-block radius, including homes, a middle school, an apartment complex and a nursing home where over 130 residents were evacuated.
The plant was fined $2,300 by the EPA in 2006 for failing to have an adequate risk management plan. The plant itself declared in documents filed with local public safety officials and the EPA that it posed no risk of fire or explosion; the worst-case scenario they envisioned was a release of ammonia gas that would kill and injure no one.
II. On April 20, 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11. Countless others had their lives changed forever by this incident, not to mention the environmental harm. In 2011 the U.S. government concluded that BP, Transocean and Halliburton were all to blame for cost-cutting measures and insufficient safety procedures which led to the accident. The report went on to describe the problems as “systemic” and warned that more accidents such as this, “absent significant reform in both industry practices and government policies, might well recur.” (Needless to say little has changed.) In 2012, BP settled a federal lawsuit by pleading guilty and agreeing to pay a record $4.525 billion. BP’s revenues in 2012 were $388.285 billion. (Making that “record” fine equal to just over 1% of one year’s worth of the company’s revenues!) Halliburton earned $24.8 billion in revenues in 2011. Small-fish Transocean’s revenues were $9.576 billion in 2010.
III. On Monday an unknown perpetrator or perpetrators (apparently 2 brothers) placed explosives near the finish of the Boston Marathon and so far 3 deaths and 183 injuries are reported, 23 critical injuries.
Why do I group these three tragedies together?
Two are accidents, the other is an act of terrorism. Right? One is intentional and premeditated; the others are the by-product of human error intersecting with modern life and technology. Right?
Acts of terrorism are perpetrated by those under the sway of some radical agenda—allegiance to some flawed philosophy. The other incidents are unfortunate collateral damage on the edges of capitalism. Right?
I am merely trying to point out that people get all worked up and justifiably angry when we understand that civil society is under attack. When there is a clear perpetrator, if the culprit turns out to be a crazy sicko we say, “Lone gunman.” And that disturbs and comforts us at the same time. Disturbs us because we say, “What drives a person to that place? People are crazy! Are people more crazy today than ever before?” Comforts us because we say, “That was one lone psycho and that’s the end of that.” We put that person away or, if the incident happened in certain regions, the person is put to death. People seem to be comfortable with their hatred for “the sicko” who did something horrible. Our bearings are realigned and we move on.
If the culprit is someone adhering to an extreme anti-something ideology then we respond by condemning them and everyone like them, which we did already. This reaction too is one that folks seem fairly comfortable with. We have a villain to blame and we know he is evil because of what he did and even more so because he is a member of the “Legion of Doom.” We hate that it happened and that innocents suffered and died but we do not have to change our beliefs. And historically we often end up spending a lot of money and spilling a lot more blood to rain a disproportionate amount of destruction down on the people who think like, or just look like, or live adjacent to the person or persons who did something hurtful to us. And the nation appears to be comfortable with all of that.
But, what about those other things? Those bad things that happen, including deaths, that are the product of our own behavior and our own ideology? When we know that perpetuating the status quo leads inevitably to more death and destruction, surely we are beyond being able to call these things accidental?
When the official report says, without major changes this will happen again, and major changes do not occur, aren’t we now all collectively responsible?
Did you know that in the last 40 years almost 500 people have suffocated, drowned essentially, in grain storage bins? NPR reporter Howard Berkes says that “egregious and willful behavior that results in the death of a worker in this country is only a misdemeanor under federal law and it carries a maximum jail time of six months”! So there is almost never a criminal prosecution; the only penalties are those issued by federal regulators with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Consider this incident:
About 12:45 PM on May 29, 2009, [foreman] Levi Bachmann told Cody Rigsby and another boy to enter Bin 21 to clean it out. Levi Bachmann allowed Cody Rigsby to enter Bin 21 despite knowing that the bucket elevator was not locked out and grain was flowing from the bin. While inside the bin, Cody Rigsby was engulfed by the flowing grain and sucked under where he died of asphyxiation. Despite the efforts of Cody Rigsby’s co-workers, they were unable to locate and rescue him. This fatality was preventable and occurred due to the lack of safety and health training, personnel protective and rescue equipment, unsafe work procedures and a lack of on-site emergency responders.OSHA issued a fine of $1,592,500 (what was surely a record). After appeal the amount paid was $50,000.
These are the wounds America inflicts on ourselves, and in aggregate it exacts a far greater toll than any vicious act by some lone nutjob, fanatical group or any other enemy. The price is paid in lives lost, livelihoods destroyed, natural resources degraded and—perhaps worst of all—faith in our country destroyed.
Americans are a downtrodden bunch. There are those who are angry for no good reason; and there are those who are happy because they pour all their energy and attention into individual pursuits; but those who are paying attention and who are rational realize that we live in a broken system where material improvement for all is not currently possible.
These “workplace accidents” I described are not accidents. When you can predict it, over and over; when sensible rules are flouted; when corners are cut to make an extra buck; when the negative consequences are real and expected and the only corporate concern is minimizing any fines or negative publicity… we have reached the level of premeditated intentional infliction of harm no less than that of any other terrorist act.
The angry reaction against these injuries, however, are not uniform and widespread. We are uncomfortable facing up to these violations against civil society. The other, the “crazy person” we are keen to ostracize. But when the problem is within us… ???
Is it time to label America’s brand of capitalism a fanatical and destructive ideology?