Normative Narratives


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Transparency Thursday: As the Debris Settles, Answers from the West Fertilizer Co. Plant Explosion

In a week of news dominated by the act of domestic terror at the Boston Marathon, another tragic event struck our nation that received comparatively little press. I am referring to the explosion at the West Fertilizer Company plant in West, Tex, which killed 10 firefighters and at least 4 civilians:

“In the moments after a fire broke out at a fertilizer plant here last week, some of the volunteer firefighters and other first responders who rushed to the scene appeared to have known that there were tons of dangerously combustible ammonium nitrate inside, but others did not”

The uncertainty over who was aware of the chemical at the plant and who was not, both at the site and in Washington, illustrates the patchwork regulatory world the plant operated in and the ways in which it slipped through bureaucratic cracks at the federal, state and local levels.

One week after the blast, investigators were still not sure how much ammonium nitrate was stored there, whether it had been stored properly and which agencies had been informed about it — even though a host of federal, state and local officials were responsible for regulating and monitoring the plant’s operations and products.”

“Many safety decisions — including moves in recent years to build homes, schools and a nursing home not far from the decades-old plant — were left to local officials who often did not have the expertise to assess the dangers. And the gaps in the oversight of the plant and a paper trail of records have left the essential question of how and why the ammonium nitrate ignited a mystery.

The explosion was so powerful it leveled homes and left a crater 93 feet wide and 10 feet deep. Judging by the size of the crater and the extent of the damage — pieces of twisted metal landed in distant pastures, and ceiling tiles and lights shook loose in buildings two miles away — the explosion was more powerful than the Oklahoma City bombing, experts said.”

When a tragedy like this occurs, it is natural to ask ourselves “could this event, and the pain and suffering it has caused, have been avoided?It seems pretty clear, from the evidence surrounding the explosion and the policies in place that it could have been.

It is fairly obvious that the explosion was caused by the presence of this chemical, which was not produced at the plant but merely sold there. In an attempt to make extra money selling a potentially dangerous chemical, countless lives were put in danger, ultimately resulting in 14 deaths.

 “The blast crater is in the part of the plant where the ammonium nitrate was stored, the official said, though investigators do not yet know exactly how much of it was there at the time or how the storage bins were configured.”

It is evident that there were oversights at the local, state, and federal level which allowed for this event to unfold.

“Under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, the plant is required to send an annual report detailing the hazardous chemicals it keeps on site to three state and local groups — the Texas Department of State Health Services, the local fire department and a group of county emergency officials known as the Local Emergency Planning Committee.“

“After the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress passed a law requiring plants that use or store explosives or high-risk chemicals to file reports with the Homeland Security Department so it can increase security at such facilities. That requirement includes any plant with more than 400 pounds of ammonium nitrate, but a Homeland Security official said that West Fertilizer had not filed such a report, even though it had 1,350 times that amount. The plant is not on the department’s list of 4,000 facilities with high-risk chemicals, and one official said it might have been placed on that list if it had filed a report.“

West Fertilizer Company, which operates the plant, has a decades-long rap-sheet of compliance problems with Texas environmental rules, and has not been inspected by federal regulators in since 1985:

The plant was last inspected by OSHA in 1985. At the time, according to records obtained by the Associated Press, OSHA cited the plant for improper storage of anhydrous ammonia and fined it $30; OSHA could have imposed a fine of as much as $1,000. OSHA also cited the plant for violations of respiratory protection standards, but did not issue fines.”

A fine of $30 dollars, 28 years ago, hardly seems like much of a deterrent. A recent report suggests that damage caused by the plant will exceed $100 million dollars.

The question now is going forward, who should be held responsible for this preventable tragedy so that future tragedies can be prevented?

There is certainly a strong case to be made against regulators at the local, state, and federal level, as well as the owners of the West Fertilizer Company Plant.

A number of lawsuits have already been filed against Adair Grain Inc., which owns the plant, of negligence which led to the explosion. It can only be assumed that as more facts present themselves, more suits will be filed.

Should any government regulators, whose negligence allowed this tragedy to take place, be held accountable? What about local elected officials who allowed schools and hospitals to be built so close to a potentially dangerous site? In what ways will those who are held accountable be charged? Will it be merely financial compensation, or will someone be held accountable for the human suffering caused by the explosion?

Sound off people; a tragedy like this could happen anywhere without competent regulatory oversight.

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Transparency Thursday: Remembering the Victim’s of the Boston Marathon Bombing–Creating a Legacy of Peace

“This is Martin Richard, 8, who was killed in yesterday’s attack. His sister and mother are critically injured. His message, “No more hurting people–Peace” is something we should all seek to honor, and remember him by.” –George Takei

By now, everybody has heard about the tragic events that unfolded this Monday during the Boston Marathon. Two bombs exploded, killing three people and injuring over 100 more. Today, President Obama Spoke at an interfaith memorial service at Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross:

“Mr. Obama spoke in personal terms about the victims of the bombing and offered prayers for their families. Krystle Campbell, 29, of Medford, Mass., was ‘always smiling,’ he said, noting that her parents were at the service. He said that his prayers were with the family of Lu Lingzi, 23, in China, who had sent her to graduate school at Boston University ‘so that she could experience all that this city has to offer.’ And he spoke about what he called the heartbreaking death Martin Richard, 8, of Dorchester, who was killed in the blast, which also wounded his mother and sister.”

“At a Senate hearing Thursday morning, the nation’s top intelligence official, James R. Clapper Jr., echoed President Obama’s comments earlier this week that the authorities still do not know whether the attack was a foreign or domestic plot, carried out by one or more individuals or a group.”

This tragic event understandably evokes emotional responses from those directly and indirectly affected. In the aftermath of this event, as the details reveal themselves over time, it would be prudent to take a step back and remember some of the ideals America was founded on; tolerance and freedom of speech, a place where no one could be persecuted based on nationality or religion, and where everyone is innocent until proven guilty (due process of law).

I came out with this response to the bombings on Monday:

“Tragedy in Boston. Prayers go out to the families and loved ones affected by this senseless act of violence.

Please do not jump to xenophobia and hatred after this event. Only through cooperation and kindness can events like this be prevented. There is no proof as to who committed this unthinkable act–American, Muslim, or otherwise.

In America everyone is innocent until proven guilty.”

Many people started blaming “muslims”, “terrorists”, or “them” after this attack. Jumping to such conclusions are counter-productive. For one thing, all signs point to this being a domestic terror attack; the sight was not a huge landmark like the W.T.C, and no terrorists organization has claimed responsibility. While it would be irresponsible journalism to say with certainty this was not an act of a foreign terrorist organization, all signs are pointing in that direction.

This message of the preventative powers of peace, kindness and cooperation sound good on paper, but can they actually work in practice? Martin Richard was an 8-year-old boy who believed in these principles,  but are they practical in real life? Beyond the ethical stance, there are economic and social reasons why these normative views can indeed help reduce acts of terrorism. Of course we need security, but security is only one side of the preventative coin. Dealing with the root causes of domestic and foreign terrorism will reduce the number of would be attacks, and allow our security forces to better manage the threats that inevitably will still exist.

First let us examine foreign terrorism. I would like to point you all to an earlier post I made on preventative peace-building and protracted social conflict (PSC). This piece highlights how human rights violations are at the root of most violence in the developing world. Instability creates a foothold for terrorism to operate–when a government is not providing essential services and / or security, terrorist groups can fill the void, essentially buying goodwill. Most people in these countries are aware they are supporting terrorist activities, but if it is a choice between having essential services provided or not, they could care less.

That is why, in order to stop foreign terrorism at its roots, we must empower friendly governments to provide the services and security that they are obligated to provide. Doing this will help push terrorists to the margins, and create lasting alliances in strategic locations. My previous post suggests redistributing money from the D.o.D. to the D.o.S., as overt military action has proven to be an ineffective and costly means of nation building.

Next let us examine domestic terrorism. In America, we are all relatively well off compared to those in the rest of the world. Social programs exist to help protect the human rights of those less fortunate; hopefully drastic cuts in these programs do not take place or else we will see the crime rate go up.

One area that America is notoriously weak in is public mental healthcare access. Mental health issues affect the rich and poor alike, and probably disproportionately affect the poor. As someone who has personally seen their self-confidence and productive capacity bolstered by mental healthcare, I am a strong proponent of providing access to mental healthcare to all Americans.

Obamacare, which is supposed to become effective in 2014, is expected to extend mental healthcare to all Americans. This should help people overcome their issues, lead happier and more productive lives, and ultimately reduce the number of people dependent on the welfare state in the long run. Many people have issues that are fairly common, but due to their socioeconomic standing remain isolated and untreated. It is these people who usually turn to crime, including domestic terrorism. By increasing access to mental healthcare, these incidents will decline.

No policies will ever entirely eliminate terrorism, domestic or foreign. But there are common sense ways to reduce the number of attacks as much as possible, which should allow our security forces to better prevent future acts of terrorism.

Robert Martin did not understand these complex interconnections, he was an 8-year-old boy. It is an honor to be able to provide some theoretical insight into Robert Martin’s normative stance; just because he didn’t understand why he was right doesn’t make him any less right. The best way to reduce terrorism, both domestic and foreign, is to attack it at its roots. The alternative, an increasing reliance on American security forces at home and abroad, has been proven too costly and ineffective.

As Albert Einstien said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

People (generally) respond to violence and hatred with more violence and hatred. People (generally) respond to acts of kindness with humility, gratitude, and friendship. Acts of terrorism represent an intractable vicious cycle; someone can always point a finger and recall past atrocities to justify their actions in their own mind.

In order to move forward as a global community we must look forward and think about what we can do differently, if we hope to break this vicious cycle.