Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
"Is this Donald Adair, owner of Adair Grain, parent company of West Chemical and Fertilizer?"
"This is his house, but I'm his son-in-law, Rusty, and he don't want to talk to you."
"Oh, um, OK, Rusty. Well, could you tell me if Donald was radicalized by Islam?"
"Haha! You're fishin', buddy."
"What about his reported connections to Saudi nationals?"
"You gotta stop callin' here."
"Are you kid--"
Last week, we suffered two acts of domestic terrorism. Despite the striking parallels -- massive explosions, comparable carnage, failures of governmental agencies meant to keep us safe, nefarious and radical ideologies -- only one of the tragedies fits our inexplicably odd and narrow definition of "terrorism." The Boston Marathon bombings will shape our national dialogue, saturate the media, and potentially affect policy into the foreseeable future, while the larger, deadlier blast in Texas will soon be forgotten, written off as an unfortunate accident, unworthy of serious reflection.
Hell, not even the Boston bombing fits the evil cookie cutter well enough for some. The usual schmucks -- Michele Bachmann, Glenn Beck, et al -- are still chasing down melanin-rich Saudi national conspiracies. As the New York Post predicted, in their own special way, the Tsarnaev brothers were too Caucasian (literally), too American, to conform to our preconceived notion of the terrorist. But they had Allah, and that's all you need.
White people are not terrorists. John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, Adam Lanza, Charles Manson, Tim McVeigh, Ted Kaczynski, Eric Rudolph, Joe Stack, George Metesky, Byron De La Beckwith, James Kopp, etc, etc (the list goes on and on) are criminals. They're not portrayed as an imminent, existential threat that needs to be stopped -- at the cost of our own civil liberties. A representative of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Caucasian People) is not expected to denounce their respective acts of terror. Larry the Cable Guy doesn't have to distance himself from their radicalized perversion of whiteness.
Even if Edgar Winter blew up the Sear's Tower, as long as he shouted "Allahu Akbar!" before hitting the detonator, he'd miraculously be seen as a swarthy other, sparking debate over whether he should be Mirandized, or tried by a military tribunal. We expect Muslims to be CNN's "dark-skinned" individual. Even purported "intellectuals" like Sam Harris think it's possible to profile Muslims at airports. He and many others have failed to notice that Islam -- moderate to radical -- is a belief system, not a physical characteristic.
Indeed, we have peculiar criteria for what constitutes terrorism -- the thing that's nearly dominated our national dialogue for over a decade. With a dozen more casualties in Texas than in Boston, almost as many wounded, a 93 feet wide and 10 feet deep crater, roughly 150 houses and buildings destroyed, and an estimated $150 million in damages, it's not about raw death tolls or sheer destruction. And in 2011, for example, Americans were approximately 270 times more likely to die at work than they were in a terrorist attack. What does and what does not register as a dangerous threat to America (or at least American citizens), and all the various ways it needs to be dealt with, is more a matter of our own psychology and the particular threat's cast of characters, its plot arc, its entertainment value.
It's easy -- too easy -- to wrap our collective minds around the idea that outsiders, evil-doers motivated by a radical and alien religion are hell-bent on attacking our tribe, destroying our way of life. Whatever that means. It's very human. Caricatured as it may be, the threat has a face. It's a bad Hollywood script, featuring the clichéd super-villain. And a shootout on a college campus, a city on lockdown, a live manhunt set to Wolf Blitzer's nasally refrain, "I don't know what's going on," is just damn exciting television.
Far less fun is the exploration of the familiar, the institutional, internalized radical ideology that's woven into the very fabric of our economic system so tightly we often fail to see it.
The buck may stop with Donald Adair in this case, groups like the Chamber of Commerce who've been demonizing Nixon's Occupational Health and Safety Administration as a "job killer" for 40 years, and the Republican goons who slashed OSHA's budget in 2011, but the general facelessness of unregulated capitalism isn't as engaging as watching a police standoff with an armed and wounded suspect in a boat.
There are 14 deaths, and roughly 8,000 workplace injuries, each day in this country, but they don't make the kind of sexy reality TV that boosts ratings and ad revenue.
By now we all know the boring story: The West Chemical and Fertilizer Co. hadn't been fully inspected by OSHA since 1985 (OSHA's so underfunded that it can only inspect these types of plants once every 129 years).
The plant contained 1,350 times the legal limit of extremely volatile ammonium nitrate, failing to notify the Department of Homeland Security. Shockingly, the plant lacked basic safety equipment like fire alarms, blast walls, shut-off valves, and even sprinklers. And the last partial inspection by the Department of Transportation/Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration resulted in fines totaling $5,250. This disaster was an "accident" in the way crossing the street with your eyes closed is "safe."
But it's simply cheaper for companies to take the slap on the wrist and pay the meager fine than it is to ensure their workers don't get blown up, crushed in a mine collapse, engulfed in an oil fire, etc. These sorts of toothless penalties are now baked into the cost of business. It's a simple cost/benefit analysis.
It's not terrorism; it's a commonplace maximization of profit. It's Libertarianism at work. And that's pretty dull. Apparently, you need Islam and shadowy, "radicalizing" figures to really turn Wolf Blitzer's head. And according to Rusty, Adair's radical ideology is just too mundane for primetime. It's everywhere. It's mostly preventable. And it kills more innocent Americans than Islamic extremists ever will.