Partial Readings: The Violence We Can, and Can’t, Prevent

Partial Readings: The Violence We Can, and Can’t, Prevent

The West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion. Image courtesy of DFW Scanner/Facebook.

It’s been a grim week. Whether it was the bombing at the Boston marathon or the explosion of a fertilizer plant in small-town Texas, the week’s events have instilled, for many in the U.S., a renewed sense of vulnerability to mindless violence. Reports of atrocities in all corners of the globe, many of them far more lethal than the Boston bombing, have hardly been comforting. Neither have developments in Congress, where the crucial components of new gun control legislation were shot down, while CISPA—the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, a major blow to internet freedom—passed in the House.

Killing three and leaving close to two hundred wounded, the Boston marathon bombings have resonated around the world, with their symbolic weight adding to the trauma experienced by the immediate victims. Messages of sympathy and solidarity are pouring in from around the world, including from actual war zones. In response to the violence, many on the scene have showed tremendous courage and fortitude, including runners who ran on from the finish line to the hospital to donate blood.

The more conspicuous reaction, however, has been a predictable torrent of xenophobia in U.S. media, with major news outlets from the New York Post and Fox to CNN and C-Span racing to blame the attack on jihadists long before even a shred of evidence pointed in that direction. Needless to say, the reaction has been even more appalling in the far-right blogosphere and on Twitter. The innocent Saudi “suspect,” two other young brown men, and millions of Arab, South Asian, and Muslim Americans are now threatened—in some cases, physically—by a fresh wave of Islamophobia.

As George Zornick noted on The Nation‘s live blog, “Islamophobic reaction to the events in Boston are quickly morphing from citizen-level incidents to the blogosphere to high levels of government.” Representative Peter King of New York, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, demanded “increase[d] surveillance” of the American Muslim community, citing a “new front” in the war on terror. “This is Exhibit A of why the homeland is the battlefield,” agreed South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham. Some local legislators, deprived of a national news outlet, opted to weigh in on Twitter.

Following the lead of Ann Coulter, meanwhile, prominent Congress members were quick to drag the bombing into the debate over immigration reform. This “would not be the first time that a massive push for reform crumbled under the weight of an act of violence,” noted Seth Freed Wessler at ColorLines. “The attacks on September 11, 2001, came just days after President George W. Bush affirmed his commitment to a grand bargain on immigration.”

In the tense days before police identified the Tsarnaev brothers as suspects, liberal commentators were reduced to praying that the bomber was white. Expectations have been widely confounded by the fact that the suspects are confirmed to be as Caucasian as it gets, but still probably inspired by Islamist extremism. Civil rights advocates are maintaining a hard defensive line as the nineteen-year–old Dzokhar Tsarnaev, a U.S. citizen, is likely being denied constitutional rights in interrogations.

Rather than dwell on the details of Tsarnaev’s hunt and capture or the hysteria of the parallel social mediamainstream media feedback loop, tempting as it may be, let’s take a moment to situate the Boston bombing in this unusually tumultuous week in U.S. politics.

The marathon bombing, all things considered, is the kind of tragedy that is very hard to prevent. Practically the opposite is true of gun violence—and yet, this week, the latest version of a bill strengthening background checks on gun transactions was rejected by the Senate, in yet another major victory for the NRA and maybe the final blow to the latest round of proposed gun control legislation.

Granted, there’s no guarantee that the background check bill, already drastically diluted thanks to gun-lobby efforts, would significantly have reduced violent crime, or even mass shootings, though most evidence suggests that closing egregious loopholes in gun regulation would be a good start. Still, there’s only so much we can do to stop deranged killers, whether they strike with AR-15s or pressure cookers.

But factory explosions? Turns out they’re about as preventable as it gets. Eclipsed from the news cycle within twenty-four hours by the hunt for the Boston bomber, an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas left at least fourteen dead and some two hundred wounded on Wednesday; authorities continue to sift through the rubble for victims. This disaster, a cocktail of corporate recklessness, gutted regulatory bodies, and a lack of labor protections—not to mention the fact that our food system depends on such explosive chemicals in the first place—could easily have been prevented with the right political will. The New York Times reports:

Records kept by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration [OSHA] show that the agency last inspected the plant 28 years ago. In that inspection, dated Feb. 13, 1985, the agency found five “serious” violations, including ones involving improper storage and handling of anhydrous ammonia and improper respiratory protection for workers. The agency imposed a $30 penalty on the company.

In the Nation, Lee Fang notes that OSHA “has only inspected five fertilizer plants in the entire state of Texas—and the plant in West, Texas was not one of them. OSHA is severely understaffed and operates with a tiny federal budget”—$550 million, as Mike Elk told Democracy Now. That adds up to 2,200 OSHA inspectors for eight million workplaces, according to Elk, amounting to a federal stamp of approval for corporate negligence. The result? Over 4,600 workplace deaths per year as of 2010, or thirteen per day.

“How come there’s no man hunt for the owner of the Texas factory?” a labor leader wondered. And while we’re at it, what about for Texas governor Rick Perry, who—shortly before the explosion—bragged about the kind of budget cuts that are stripping regulators of the resources they need to safeguard workers?

Aside from the sheer scope of this week’s violence, what’s perhaps most unsettling is that the event that our political system has the least control over—the Boston bombing—is the one that will register the most in U.S. political consciousness, while the atrocities that policymakers and corporations are directly responsible for will continue unabated. What surprise is it, really, that bad news gets more coverage when it mirrors an action movie than when it hinges on the failures of austerity?


Elsewhere online:

Shutting Boston down for a day cost $333 million.

Two NYPD officers who pepper-sprayed and assaulted Occupy Wall Street protesters won’t face criminal charges.

After seven years and more than $170 million, the Khmer Rouge tribunal has convicted just one man of war crimes.

The Supreme Court ruled against plaintiffs in the Kiobel v. Shell case, declaring that foreigners could not use the U.S. judicial system to sue U.S. corporations for human rights violations.

At Guantanamo Bay, guards fired at hunger-striking prisoners with rubber bullets; a New York Times editorial by one of the detainees is a testament to their agony.

The New Yorker and the Nation square off with creative maps of inequality in New York.

Workers along the Walmart supply chain are organizing internationally to demand livable working conditions. While workers from Bangladesh traveled to the United States, workers at another U.S. retailer flew to the Netherlands to confront their bosses.

Bolivia is the fifth state worldwide to ratify the ILO’s Domestic Workers Convention.

Excelgate: 28-year–old grad student Thomas Herndon sunk the nail in the coffin of austerity economics, revealing major errors in a study regularly cited by such deficit hawks as Paul Ryan. “So, did an Excel coding error destroy the economies of the Western world?” Paul Krugman chimed in. Peter Frase took the opportunity to examine “the pernicious rise of the ‘policy wonk’ as a model for journalism.” Herndon remains modest. “This week has been quite the week,” he told New York mag.