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What is terrorism?

rainey BARRETT


One of the thorny issues in our world these days is trying to define the words “terrorism” and “terrorist.” Our federal government hasn’t done that successfully, either. One department has a definition – two others have their own “unique” meanings. Since we appear headed to court soon, we need to have some clarity on these words.

While no one in our little Oregon burg-in-the-woods would try to affect thinking at those rarified, higher bureaucratic levels, we would like offer a definition of terrorist no one along the Potomac seems to have considered.

How about someone – or anyone – who violates a minimum of more than three dozen federal/state laws while running a fertilizer plant near the center of a small Texas town? How about an ownership that deliberately stored on site 1,350 times the amount of ammonium nitrate at the plant in violation of operating and licensing agreements? How about owners who knew – HAD to know – the last OSHA inspection was in 1985 but never – never – contacted OSHA or Dept. Of Homeland Security when their inventories increased as required by federal law?

How about three federal agencies that failed to inspect a West, Texas, plant under their purview – the lead office for more than three decades? How about two state agencies that virtually ignored what was going on at the plant for years and years? How about local elected officials who watched the fertilizer operation grow and grow for 60 years without considering more than just the economic benefits of larger payrolls?

How about the anonymous (aren’t they always?) federal bureaucrats who decided such companies – dealing in amounts of explosives to guarantee catastrophe in event of a major accident – would be tasked with “self-reporting” when increasing on-site storage capacities or letting regulators know of leaks, accidents or other anomalies? Or the federal cabinet officers up the chain who signed off on such stupidity?

This nation did everything but stand on its head for 10 days when a couple of guys set off two bombs that killed three people. But the Texas blast killed five times as many and decimated a small town. For several days, we found details on page 12. Or buried – if not ignored – in the TV news.

Now, let’s talk about the word “terrorism” from this perspective. How about applying that word to the constant political B.S. we hear about needing to reduce regulations on business? “Political B.S.” because repeated surveys have shown politicians do the most complaining – not the guy along Main Street. Repeated surveys have shown, more often than not, business people see regulation as leveling the playing field – as assuring the competition across town is playing by the same rules. Those that do complain to the politicos are far over-represented in the resulting specious, campaign-solicitation dialogue.

There are many, many legitimate reasons for regulation. Food safety – aviation safety – banking – water and air quality – hazardous chemical controls and more. Without ‘em, our world would be much more personally dangerous than it already is. Can there be too much regulation? Yes. Can regulation be overdone? Sure. Can regulation be applied unfairly? Of course. When so, specific issues need to be addressed regularly to assure they don’t happen again. But the real need for regulation is to assure necessary oversight of basic conduct of any regulated business or service to do what it’s supposed to do. Legally. Properly. Safely.

Two political factors helped West Fertilizer exist. First, federal and state regulating agencies have been starved nearly to death by politicians cutting and gutting operating budgets. Not just OSHA and EPA. FAA, banking, Wall Street. All of them. And more. Even before our current national madness called “sequestration.” Too many politicians have responded irresponsibly to favored, monied constituent claims of alleged “over regulation” and “government interference.” Their self-serving response has left our nation woefully at risk in a lot of areas.

The second political factor is allowing too many business and corporate entities to become “self-regulating.” Poorly written regulations – some with huge loopholes – left up to companies to “enforce.” And Wall Street is only the first example that comes to mind. While most businesses will do the right thing and will operate within the letter and spirit of regulation, West Fertilizer is exhibit “A” of those that don’t. And won’t.

West Fertilizer will never operate again. Owners will likely take out bankruptcy and whatever remains of insurance and other assets will be parceled out to those who win the many lawsuits to come.. Given the normal operation of Texas politics, odds are no one in the company’s ownership or employ will ever do a day of jail time.

Terrorists. Terrorism. A couple of guys with two pressure cooker bombs? Sure. How about a company that illegally piled up 540,000 pounds of unreported ammonium nitrate in one building also housing anhydrous ammonia and other chemicals? How about a Pentagon estimate that the 270 tons of nitrate on that Texas site could – had it all gone off – cause an explosion dwarfing any weapon in the nation’s nuclear arsenal? How about a company that amasses such destructive power and ignores the legal – if not moral – obligations to report it under its licensing agreements?

No one knows how all this will work out. But I’d sure like to see the feds settle on an over-arching definition of the words “terrorism” and “terrorist” with sufficient subcategories to guarantee each of us the safety we think we already have. And I’d like to know that – in the end – not only will those two brothers be included. But Sandy Hook, too. And Aurora, Colorado. And Clackamas Mall. And the streets of Chicago. And corporate terrorists as well.

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