West and Boston

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Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of Ordinary Times. Relapsed Lawyer, admitted to practice law (under his real name) in California and Oregon. On Twitter, to his frequent regret, at @burtlikko. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.

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77 Responses

  1. Avatar Mike Schilling
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    says:

    Nitpick: What I’ve heard about West is that the cause is unknown. There will be an arson investigation once the explosion site cools down enough to allow one, though that won’t be for days.Report

  2. Avatar Michael Drew
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    says:

    Negligence also matters, if it was present in West, and contains an element of intent.Report

  3. Avatar Mark Thompson
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    says:

    My goodness. I had not seen the video of this or the volume of casualties until a few minutes ago. Those poor people….the death and destruction of homes is staggering. Is there a good way to help?Report

  4. Avatar dand
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    says:

    One thing that seems clear if the initial reports are accurate is that the firefighter who responded to the initial fire weren’t properly trained in how to handle the situation.Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to dand
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      says:

      From the behavior of the people in the town before the explosion, but after the fire had started, it looks like no one really had any idea just how dangerous a fertilizer plant could be.Report

    • Avatar Just Me in reply to dand
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      says:

      I have heard all day people saying that the firefighters used water on the fire causing the explosion. I still haven’t seen any official word that this is the case. Last night I watched the video of the explosion and it seemed that the flash that caused the explosion started above the smoke away from the fire. I wondered if it wasn’t a case of thermal runaway.Report

      • Avatar Rod Engelsman in reply to Just Me
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        says:

        My chemistry’s kinda rusty (and was never that shiny to begin with) but the main constituents of commercial fertilizers are nitrates and phosphates. They certainly had a big tank of anhydrous ammonia on site, but I have no idea if that plus water plus heat would equal explosion. That stuff is hydrophilic to bond to water in the soil so I guess that would be a weak exothermic reaction. Maybe.

        My suspicion is that they had two tanks of chemicals close to each other and the heat from the initial fire breached both tanks causing stuff that shouldn’t be close together to get mixed. Blooey!

        From my Navy fire training this all sounds like a class Delta fire. You know what we did for those? Shove it off the side of the ship if possible. 😉Report

    • Avatar Rod Engelsman in reply to dand
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      says:

      Why should they have been specially trained? I got this from CNN:

      Separately, the plant had informed the Environmental Protection Agency that it presented no risk of fire or explosion, according to The Dallas Morning News. It did so in 2011 in an emergency planning report required of facilities that use toxic or hazardous chemicals.

      The plant’s report to the EPA said even a worst-case scenario wouldn’t be that dire: There would be a 10-minute release of ammonia gas that wouldn’t kill or injure anyone, the newspaper reported.

      If the owners of this facility had been honest about the risks, much of this would have gone differently. To start with it wouldn’t have been located so close to residences. They also would have had installed something like a Halon fire suppression system and had an on-site fire brigade. (Yes. I’ve been to big chemical plants. Many have their own fire departments.)

      It’s not like these things don’t go blooey from time to time. I mean… ammonium nitrate? That’s what Tim McVey used to blow up the Murray Federal building in Oklahoma City. But taking the proper precautions costs, you know, money(!!) So… there ya go. And a bunch of people paid with their lives.Report

      • Avatar Patrick in reply to Rod Engelsman
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        says:

        Halon isn’t deployed too much any more, IIRC. FM-200, Argonite. We almost put an Argonite system in the server room in the new building.

        Halon is ozone-depleting, they’re not supposed to make any more of it after… eh… sometime in the naughties.Report

        • Avatar Rod Engelsman in reply to Patrick
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          says:

          I’ll take your word on it. The last time I personally dealt with fire-suppression systems in a serious way was in the Navy (qualified as On-Scene Leader) and I got out in ’97.

          Fire drills are serious business in the Navy. It’s like your house starts on fire and you can’t run away. On the other hand you got plenty of water handy.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Rod Engelsman
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        says:

        Refineries have their own fire departments too, and on top of that all the employees get trained in putting out fires. (High-pressure CO2 extinguishers are space awesome to fire.)Report

        • Avatar Patrick in reply to Mike Schilling
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          says:

          All fire extinguishers are fun to fire, as long as you’re not all that worried about the difficulty of putting out the fire you’re firing them at.Report

        • Avatar Morat20 in reply to Mike Schilling
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          says:

          Indeed they do. In fact, at least the ones in Houston, have a cross-training setup (or at least did a decade or so ago) because it was pretty much expected that if one refinery had a fire, EVERYONE’s trained people would rush to it.

          Because, you know, they’re packed closed together.

          OTOH, refineries tend to be a bit more ‘explosion/fire/disaster’ aware than fertilizer plants. It’s really, really hard to forget oil is flammable. 🙂 Not that they’re perfect — I’ve a relative who was in one of the nastier plant explosions during the 80s. He was lucky in tha the survived — a friend of his, only a few feet away, did not.

          I know several people who work in what might be termed ‘safety’ fields for refineries, natrual gas companies, and the like. And they often fight two sources of problems — one is a company that might promote “safety” in the abstract, but often forget about it when it comes to cost savings — shaving their safety margin far more than their own guidelines allow. (Always justified, of course, with reams of paper explaining how this is different).

          But the other, equally as dangerous — the workers themselves. Safety gear is often hot and cumbersome. Safety measures are time-consuming. Sometimes it’s seen as unmasculine or hand-holding or even contemptous (“Don’t you think I can avoid blowing myself up”) and workers themselves cut corners.

          My friend — the one who does field inspections — says he flat-0ut spends the bulk of his time threatening, cajoling, reprimanding, and harassing men into wearing gear that will save their lives — or taking the extra steps in a job that will keep a catastrophe from happening. And they don’t want to, because it makes the job longer and the gear’s hot, and they’ve — the crew right there – have never had a problem, no matter how many accidents or incidents happened to other crews elsewhere.Report

          • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Morat20
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            says:

            Yeah, but despite all this, I’ve heard that the actual BP folks are pretty damn careful (this is why they have safetymen). it was just the yokel contractors making them look like asses in the gulf.Report

            • Avatar Morat20 in reply to Kimmi
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              says:

              None of the refineries want to, you know, lose a hundred million or two in equipment and product.

              But they also don’t want to pay a penny more for anything they buy.

              Safety, risk, costs — they’re all in tension.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Morat20
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                says:

                Yes. Some corporate hotshot fucked up bigtime in his risk assessment, with that BP disaster.Report

              • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Morat20
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                says:

                As I cautioned someone else with the recent police activity in Boston, I think it may be a bit too early to start drawing conclusions about what happened in West. Y’all may turn out to be right about cost-cutting producing an unacceptable risk, but I wouldn’t yet be comfortable filing a lawsuit as counsel for a victim — not based on what I’ve read in the media as of today.Report

              • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Kimmi
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                says:

                Kos doesn’t strike me as an entirely unbiased source for information. Still, I’m not saying that the plant in West didn’t cut corners, Kimmi; it may well turn out that was the case. There’s just insufficient information available and too much confusion fogging up what is available. IMO. It’ll sort itself out.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Burt Likko
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                says:

                I don’t see how one could possibly report that this sort of plant poses no risk of fire or explosion.
                This, again, may have nothing to do with the current “boom” (they may have switched management, stuff may have been addressed)…
                but it seems pretty clear that some balls were not just being dropped, but willfully hidden.Report

              • Avatar Morat20 in reply to Burt Likko
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                says:

                Neither would I. However, speculating on it?

                Look, Texas is a really low-regulation environment in general. Bush was rather famous (or infamous) for his proposed “Self-monitoring” regulatory system for emissions, for instance.

                State spending on regulatory and inspection apparatus is, well, nil.

                This may be a case of an entirely unpreventable fluke accident. It might even be sabotage, terrorism, or disgruntled employees.

                But in terms of internet speculation? This was a fertilizer plant, working with chemicals that — in conjunction — blow up really well (something Texas has past history with, in fact), and within shouting distance of the plant was a nursing home and a school. (Then again, there are schools that close to the refineries along the Houston ship channel…)

                The plant itself’s own filed risk reports were, well, crap. I don’t expect them to read “We’re basically almost a bomb making plant, really” but I would expect a few pages on, you know, how they keep the volatiles from becoming a bomb and a worst-case scenario that was at least “destruction of factory” (which would only underplay the worst case by a few orders of magnitude).

                In the end? I’d say the betting money is on “entirely preventable screwup”. Whether cost cutting or — as I mentioned above — lax safety procedures (whether through familiarity and lack of incidents or lack of real safety procedures, whatever)….

                I wouldn’t file a lawsuit on that. I’d probably put 20 down at a Vegas table on it, though. And even if that’s not the case? There are plenty of places where that IS the problem. So it’s worth talking about.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Morat20
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                says:

                Yeah, this. 😉Report

      • Avatar Patrick in reply to Rod Engelsman
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        says:

        Back to the original point, though, firefighters follow the NFPA training guidelines pretty stringently just about everywhere.

        If there was a hydrophobic substance around, and a firefighter hit it with a hose, somebody’s ass is going up the creek, because there’s no way that they do that when the diamond says no. They even have a specific symbol for that.Report

      • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to Rod Engelsman
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        says:

        Yeah, it’s looking more and more like the plant owners were at least negligent if not outright lying about what they had on site.Report

  5. Avatar Just Me
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    says:

    When I first heard reports last night they said explosion in Waco and I knew it was getting close to the 20 year anniversary of the Waco Siege ending. I can’t help wondering every year what is going to happen around April 20th.

    This guy is pretty lucky, hope there is no third time for him.

    Such a tragedy. I can not imagine going through what the citizens of West Texas did last night. My thoughts are with them.Report

  6. Avatar Michael Drew
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    says:

    The gutted nursing home was what got me. They had seniors in wheeling around in their chairs on the football field where the relief effort was staged with nowhere to put them. Oh, your nursing home just got flattened? Bummer, good luck finding a place to sleep.Report

  7. Avatar greginak
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    says:

    Perhaps putting something that might blow up in a really big fashion near other stuff wasn’t a good idea. Maybe a little zoning might have kept this plant far away from places where people live. They should be kept on the outskirts of town, like Waffle House’s, where there are less danger to people.Report

  8. Avatar greginak
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    says:

    And if all this wasn’t enough a MIT campus cop was shot dead tonight and there is some sort of manhunt/ gun battle/explosions going on. oyReport

  9. Avatar George Turner
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    says:

    Hop on the web folks. Boston and Watertown just turned into Baghdad. One officer killed at MIT, massive shootout in Watertown, pursuits, grenades, etc.Report

    • Avatar Patrick in reply to George Turner
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      says:

      Wife’s listening to the local news broadcast in the other room.Report

      • Avatar George Turner in reply to Patrick
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        says:

        My earlier attempts with links got stuck in the spam filter. The one arrested in Watertown seems to be one of the two Middle Eastern men who hijacked a car in Cambridge and were tossing bombs out. The live feeds are certainly on fire right now.Report

        • Avatar Patrick in reply to George Turner
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          says:

          Recovered your comments, George.Report

        • Avatar George Turner in reply to George Turner
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          says:

          Thanks. I’m not sure where one of my chat buddies is getting his info, but he’s saying the suspects are Mike Mulugeta (1) and Sunil Tripathi (2) (according to BPD scanner) and that Sunil was born here and had just gone missing from Brown Univ, leaving his wallet and cell behind. He also says they found a pressure cooker at the Watertown scene.Report

          • Avatar George Turner in reply to George Turner
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            says:

            Cancel the above, even though it was all over the interwebtubes half the night, official sources are now saying that both suspects are from Chechnya and have only been in the US about a year, and suspect #2 at least has a quite different name, 19-year old Zokar Sarnev. Al Qaeda has recruited heavily in Chechnya for bombers who didn’t look ethnic and could move more easily in the West.Report

            • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to George Turner
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              says:

              I think waiting for good information to be officially verified (as in by law enforcement officials themselves) before publishing peoples’ names in association with crimes would be a good policy. Let’s not take rumor as truth and bear in mind that our judicial system operates with something called the presumption of innocence.

              Personally I would rather relegate “police scanner” type “reporting” to some other place entirely and I caution all readers not to assume that any specific individual is guilty of anything based on the above.Report

            • Avatar North in reply to George Turner
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              says:

              Odd, if Al Queda had pulled it off you’d think they’d be crowing about it.Report

            • Avatar George Turner in reply to George Turner
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              says:

              Well, two things. In the West, Al Qaeda has been using suicide attacks so it wouldn’t matter if they crow about it because their assets would’ve already been lost. These two still had lots of bombs they hadn’t used yet. Also, the two bombers couldn’t easily send a message without giving themselves away, and were probably smart enough not to establish continuing electronic contacts with cells outside the US, so other cells might not have even been aware of their plans. There’s also the possibility that they are Chechens who aren’t directly affiliated with Al Qaeda.Report

              • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to George Turner
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                says:

                Again, please be cautious about associating specific individuals with acts of crime or criminal associations.

                I don’t want to get sued because of careless comments made by someone else, George.Report

              • Avatar Rod Engelsman in reply to George Turner
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                says:

                George, you know absolutely nothing. Everything you’ve said so far has either been proven wrong or is absolutely speculative bullshit.

                Please. Stop. Now.Report

              • Avatar MaxL in reply to George Turner
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                says:

                I am dead sick of spending a second’s thought on whatever the “cause” is for monsters.

                There should be a version of Godwin’s law for murderer’s.Report

              • Avatar Morat20 in reply to MaxL
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                says:

                Actually, it is kind of important. If it’s mental illness — sociopathy, psychotic break, whatever — learnign to spot it (preferably before it goes critical) is kind of a big thing.

                If it’s idealogical, political, religious — it’s worth knowing why, because it might help prevent future incidents.Report

    • Avatar George Turner in reply to George Turner
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      says:

      Live feed. So live they apologized for some comments from their journalists.

      Sounds like they were looking for two Middle Eastern males who carjacked a vehicle in Cambridge, then fled to Watertown with shooting and grenades, etc. As I was listening the anchor counted about 25 shots, along with lots of shouting.

      At least one person is in custody.

      Here’s another link.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi in reply to George Turner
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      says:

      You are being an idiot, and a disgrace.
      In baghdad, if you don’t hear from someone for a few months, you’re likely to assume they’re dead.Report

  10. Avatar MaxL
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    says:

    Well said, Mr. Likko.Report

  11. Avatar CK MacLeod
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    says:

    The post points to something that I suspect a lot of us have been thinking about lately, both in comparing reactions to the two events and also in observing emotional reactions from people whose lives in any real sense ought to be completely untouched by happenings in rural Texas or a few days ago in Boston. The difference in the reactions to the plant explosion and to the bombing is not an irrational difference, though explaining it seems to require entry into the realm of not-merely-rational meanings: 9/11 as validly more significant-to-us than a year’s traffic fatalities or the raw numbers of victims of other kinds of acts of war. The phrase “weight of intent” does point to the difference, dividing what we fear and indict as “evil” from what we consider merely “bad” or “unfortunate.”Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to CK MacLeod
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      says:

      Thanks for this, Mr. MacLeod. You’ve re-articulated much of what my original core thought was, and perhaps more clearly than I did.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi in reply to CK MacLeod
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      says:

      Except that there seems to be substantial evidence of malfeasance in Texas (at least according to my glancing on kos, which mentioned that risk assessment did not even include the possibility of an explosion. as in specifically ruled it out. Even I know that fertilizer can explode!)Report

      • Avatar Morat20 in reply to Kimmi
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        says:

        Negligence is still different, emotionally, than deliberate acts.

        The reckless driver who hits a kid is hated — until we see the one who ran over a kid on purpose. Recklessness, negligence — those are understood. Comprehendible.

        Deliberately doing something abhorrent is much, much harder to grasp. And we always worry more over that which we don’t understand.Report

      • Avatar CK MacLeod in reply to Kimmi
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        says:

        Yes, but for most of us that notion of malfeasance remains indirect at this point, or a mere possible explanation. We don’t know whose malfeasance or what type of malfeasance. It’s conceivable that new information or conclusions about the plant explosion will eventually turn it into a much greater “story,” but at this point it remains an embattled meaning at most. If we cannot, against initial expectations, as a culture even reach a consensual verdict on Newtown – instead are effectively divided over it as an unfortunate hazard of negative freedom vs. an intolerable attack on positive freedom – the fertilizer plant explosion has a long way to go. An attack at the Boston Marathon finish line on Patriots Day, by contrast, is an attack on an event specifically conceived and taken to represent “all of us together at our best.” It’s even more symbolically pure, you might say, than an attack on a federal building in Oklahoma, or than on the temples of American/Western economic, military, and political power targeted on 9/11.Report

        • Avatar Kimmi in reply to CK MacLeod
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          says:

          While this is indeed true, I remain more optimistic about getting more funding for OSHA than about fixing the gun control issue.Report

          • Avatar Morat20 in reply to Kimmi
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            says:

            My father, back in his union days (working in a chemical plant) used to cuss OSHA up one side and down the other, mocking their insistence on everything from hazard gear to non-slip steps to railings and fall protection.

            Years and years later, when he’d moved to management and handled issues involving safety and rather dangerous items (heavily pressurized pipes and vessels, dangerous chemicals, etc) he didn’t so much praise them….as admit they sorta had a point and occasionally opine that they made sure certain corners weren’t cut at times.

            Funny how the view of the guy actually at risk — and the guy who sees the risk statistics — differ.Report

  12. Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist
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    says:

    Apparently the NYT thinks Texas isn’t important:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/19/business/media/fox-news-msnbc-and-the-gun-debate.htmlReport

  13. Avatar KatherineMW
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    says:

    The death toll appears substantially higher than that from Boston.

    It is a strange part of human instinct, and a distortion of public policy, that we are willing to devote so much more focus and energy and money to preventing deaths from deliberate, targeted violence than on deaths from any other cause.

    It’s an additional distortion that the government is far more willing to go after individuals who kill people than it is to go after corporations who do so. One of the suspects in the Boston bombing has already been killed. There’s virtually no chance that the people running the company whose plant exploded are going to see the inside of a jail.Report

    • Avatar CK MacLeod in reply to KatherineMW
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      says:

      It’s not a distortion of public policy at all: It’s the constitutive determination at the limits of society, or “public,” at all. In other words, how a society defines or differentiates types of killing, those it rejects and punishes and those it approves of or sanctifies, is directly constitutive of that society. The alternative to “devoting” energy to catching and prosecuting murderers isn’t merely allowing the particular murderers to go free. If we cannot “devote” energy against “deliberate, targeted violence,” then what even potential basis would we have for prosecuting mere negligence, and would a society that didn’t take an active and fundamental interest in murder even be a recognizable or functional society at all? The “prevention” involved is the most basic prevention of all, against the Hobbesian war of all against all.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi in reply to CK MacLeod
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        says:

        With negligence, you have much much more of a preventative incentivization. I’m not certain one gets that with murder.Report

      • Avatar KatherineMW in reply to CK MacLeod
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        says:

        I’m not saying we should devote no energy to prevention of murder. But the amount of focus we give it relative to the focus we put on other things that kill people – disease, natural disasters, etc. – seems highly unwarranted. 9/11 fundamentally changed American politics and society, and government spent trillions of dollars on actions that were either in response to it (security, Afghanistan war, drone wars) or purported to be in response to it (Iraq War).

        A hurricane or earthquake that killed an equal number of people wouldn’t provoke anything comparable to the same level of activity and political change.

        What would happen if we started treating terrorist attacks like natural disasters – tragic, but rare, warranting some reasonable precautions but not a complete change in the way we live our lives and run our governments? Identify, capture, and try the suspects, by all means, but don’t orient an entire foreign, military, and security policy around it and ride roughshod over the Bill of Rights in the vain hope of creating a 0% chance of it ever occurring.Report

        • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to KatherineMW
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          says:

          A hurricane or earthquake that killed an equal number of people wouldn’t provoke anything comparable to the same level of activity and political change.

          In fact, the government routinely subsidizes rebuilding in high-risk areas. But you’d have to be one of those libertarian nuts to object to that.Report

        • Avatar CK MacLeod in reply to KatherineMW
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          says:

          I don’t want to devote a day to a complicated comment on a near-dead thread, so I’ll just say I can’t agree with your framing of the issues at all, KatherineMW. There is no conceivable limit to a “focus… on other things that kill people.” The notion that 9/11 “fundamentally changed American politics and society” or that our reaction to terrorism has led to a “complete change in the way we live our lives and run our governments” strikes me as hyperbolic. I don’t want to get into a complicated analysis of war costs, but the idea that “trillions” have been spent on the CFKWOT is also exaggerated language.

          In short, it’s no more or less arbitrary to assert that 9/11 and the entire Conflict Formerly Known as the War on Terror had a small effect in any “fundamental” sense on our national life. The war like most of our wars and perhaps like all real wars was conceived as a defense of our way of life, or as a resistance to any even superficial changes that would “let the terrorists win.”Report

        • Avatar MikeSchilling in reply to KatherineMW
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          says:

          More people were killed in West than in Boston. What would happen if plant safety were taken as seriously as terrorism?Report

  14. Avatar Brandon Berg
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    says:

    For that matter, the victims of car accidents, single-victim homicides, war, and disease count for just as much as well. Spectacle doesn’t make death any more tragic.Report

  15. Avatar Barry
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    says:

    Burt: “Boston seems more emotionally-charged; no one considers other than that the fertilizer factory in Texas exploding to such horrible effect is anything other than an accident, a result of negligence. Boston was obviously the result of malice. Thus do we see the weight of intent. ”

    Any sufficiently advanced negligence will be indistinguishable from malice, from the viewpoint of the relatives of the survivors.Report

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