Week of apocalypse: Boston bombs, Waco explosions, poisoned letters

It’s been a week full of high-profile mayhem and catastrophe here in the U.S., and two of its manifestations have hit very close to home for me personally.

My sister lives in Salem, Massachusetts, right next to Boston, and was driving through Boston itself on Monday when chaos broke loose in the city after the bombs went off at the marathon’s finish line. She didn’t suffer any direct personal loss or injury from the attack (or at least none that has come to light or that I’ve heard about yet), but she was and still remains right there in the direct vicinity of the incident, where she can see, feel, and experience its social and emotional impact with vivid immediacy. As she has described it both me and to our mother, people in the Boston area are currently gripped by a kind of surreal sense of unease.

Then there’s last night’s epic explosion at the fertilizer plant in West, Texas. The town of West lies about 20 miles north of Waco. I myself work in Waco and live about 20 miles northwest of the city. The town of West, in turn, is located about 20 miles east of my house as the crow flies. My wife and I heard the explosion shortly before 8 p.m. last night. I thought it was thunder. She thought it was the distant rumble of a train that we often hear passing by. Not long after that we found out what had really happened. Quite a few people at my college in Waco — students, faculty, staff — live in or near West. Most of them are of course absent today. Those of us who came to work have been receiving intermittent eyewitness reports from our students, friends, and colleagues who are on the scene in West trying to offer help and/or seeing about the status of their family and property. We’ve heard from multiple quarters that the devastation showing on television and in photographs is dwarfed by the reality on the ground. One of my students personally witnessed the blast. An hour ago she tried to describe its shocking, terrifying intensity to me, but she found her words falling short, and the attempt visibly upset her. Right now her father is in the hospital with lacerations and broken bones.

Apocalypse, as you know, is a frequent theme here at The Teeming Brain. Presently it feels like an even more vivid theme than usual in the events of daily life, manifesting especially in the modes of catastrophe and sociopathy. An article published just this morning by The Economist does a nice job of conveying what I mean:

The explosions [in Boston], separated by 600 feet (180 metres) and 12 seconds, killed three people: an eight-year-old boy and two young women. Another 180 or so were injured. At least 13 people lost limbs. That makes the attack the most deadly act of terror in America since September 11th 2001, apart from mass shootings. To add to the alarm, the authorities intercepted two letters, one addressed to Barack Obama and another to Roger Wicker, a senator, which appeared to contain ricin, a lethal poison. A fire followed by an explosion at a fertiliser factory in west Texas on the night of April 17th, which killed at least five people, increased the sense of apocalypse.

This apocalyptic sense is intensified by the fact that, even though there’s no word at the moment about any terroristic or criminal component to the West explosion, which presently appears to have been just a (horrific) industrial accident, the timing and nature of all these events both individually and collectively are enormously suspicious, since they have occurred right before the April 19 anniversary of the disastrous federal raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco and the terrorist attack by Timothy McVeigh on the federal building in Oklahoma City two years later. The New Yorker sums it all up in the context of describing the scope of last night’s destruction:

More than a hundred and sixty people have been injured, and sent to many hospitals, including to one that specialized in treating pediatric patients. There is destruction five blocks around the site; a nursing home was evacuated. [D. L.] Wilson [of the Texas Department of Public Safety] said that he had seen what was left of a fifty-unit apartment building nearby — “just a skeleton standing up.” He had also walked around the blast site, which was still smoldering. It was, he said, “just like Iraq. Just like the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City.”

The Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, in Oklahoma City, was the one that Timothy McVeigh blew up with a truck packed with fertilizer, on April 19, 1995. He murdered a hundred and sixty-eight people. He’d said that he had been thinking of Waco, and of the fire that started during a disastrous federal raid on the Branch Davidian complex, on April 19, 1993; dozens died from the flames and smoke and other means. (There were other threads to his anger, too.) This Friday is the twentieth anniversary. That, along with the events in Boston, is why some people may have woken up on Wednesday with a passing image of burning buildings in Waco, before this plant ever caught fire.

Adding to the suspicious and crazy-scary vibe, the enormity of last night’s explosion was due to the fact that this particular fertilizer plant was used for storing ammonium nitrate — the very same fertilizer that McVeigh used when building his bomb in 1995. This also means we’re all being told to keep on our toes because of the possibility that toxic fumes will blow one way or the other and impact still more people in the area (although the immediate threat of this appears to have abated).

As frightening and apocalyptic-feeling as anything are the media’s descriptions of the situation on the ground in Boston and West. The way The Economist describes Boston today makes the city commonly known as America’s “cradle of liberty and birthplace of freedom” sound like something out of a dystopia-flavored disaster movie:

Boston is now flooded with police, soldiers and other security forces, both to ward off further attacks and to help with the investigation. State troopers stand watch outside metro stations; whole squadrons of national guardsmen march back and forth on Boston Common, a park a few blocks from the site of the bombings. Barricades festooned with flowers and notes of condolence block access to the immediate area of the blasts, as investigators pore over it in the hunt for evidence.

As for West, the UK’s Independent isn’t engaging in hyperbole when it describes the situation as a “biblical scene of destruction” (regarding which, also see below):

The blast, which could be heard 45 miles away and shook the ground with a force equivalent to a magnitude 2.1 earthquake, happened just before 8pm on Wednesday, levelling up to 80 homes in the blocks around the facility. As a mushroom cloud climbed into the sky, more than 1,000 people in the town of around 2,800 were left without power. An apartment complex was ripped to shreds, a middle school was reportedly in flames, and 133 people, many of them injured, were evacuated from a nursing home. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” said McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara. “It looks like a war zone.”

As I said above, the descriptions coming from people who are personally known to me me are saying that the reports and photos and images in the media, as dramatic as they are, fail to convey the real extent of the devastation in West. This morning a coworker told me she had spoken to a mutual acquaintance of ours who had called from West to say that he wouldn’t be at work today because he was over there seeing about his family and offering his help. My coworker said that when she asked him about the “damaged” school that we’ve all heard about in the news, he replied, “What school? There’s no school left. It’s completely destroyed.”

More than just a little synchronistically, right now I’m about to finish reading John David Ebert’s The Age of Catastrophe: Disaster and Humanity in Modern Times, in which the author mounts a powerful argument that we have now definitively entered an unprecedented period in the history of human civilization in which large-scale catastrophes of the type that were formerly rare have become the norm, not just in terms of frequency and ubiquity but in terms of fundamental substance. Catastrophe and disaster, that is, have entered the ontological fabric of our collective way of being:

With record tornadoes and floods in the Midwest; a massive drought from California to Florida; a gigantic earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident in Japan; anomalous floods in Vermont and New Jersey unleashed by Hurricane Irene; more flooding in Australia; an earthquake in New Zealand; devastating fires in Texas; and another earthquake in Turkey, the year 2011 [went] down as the most expensive for “natural” disasters ever.

Catastrophe, it seems, is becoming something of a way of life for us. Indeed, it has become the new norm for civilization. . . . Catastrophe has become our new environment, a total surround, inside which we exist, but without noticing the strangeness of it, precisely because of its very ubiquity.

. . . . The evolution of [catastrophes] indicates that the events are becoming ever larger, more all-encompassing and impossible to predict, contain or control. They are, indeed, as Paul Virilio points out, becoming Biblical [sic] in scale: with 9/11 we saw a modern rehearsal of the Tower of Babel; with the 2004 tsunami, we witnessed a modern version of the Flood; and now with uprooted populations all over the globe shifting about, we are seeing a return of the Exodus. And with the BP oil spill, I would add, we have a retrieval of that pillar of smoke by day and column of fire by night which, in the Book of Exodus, led the Hebrews, during the Mediterranean Dark Age of 1300 B.C. through the desert wildernesses of Sinai.

. . . . Catastrophe is part of civilization now, just the way a severe injury resulting from an accident must become a permanent part of a man’s life from henceforth. Life, then, will continue. But it will never be the same again.

Presently, it’s not just the considerable persuasive force of Ebert’s argument but the shape of the concrete events unfolding around me, and around all of us, that tell me he’s undoubtedly onto something.

About Matt Cardin


Posted on April 18, 2013, in Society & Culture and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. After I heard about the fertilizer plant explosion I had a very unsettling thought: what if crazy people around the world—those who would love to just watch everything burn to the ground—got caught up in an ever-escalating series of mass murder events? With each horrible event inspiring more potential mass murderers to action, each trying to out-do the others? “Let’s crank this up! My turn now!”

    I didn’t like thinking about that.

  2. Justin Trudeau, likely the future Canadian prime minister, asked about the Boston bombing had this to say


  3. Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper had this to say in response,

    “When you see this type of violent act, you do not sit around trying to rationalize it or make excuses for it or figure out its root causes.
    You condemn it categorically, and to the extent you can deal with the perpetrators, you deal with them as harshly as possible.”

    His view is,
    it isn’t ok to understand why people do the things they do if they are extreme. Its only ok to condemn it categorically and punish people as harshly as legally possible. If Harper had the ability to torture and give these perpetrators a slow death, he would. If Harper had opportunity to *think* about why tragedies like this happen at the human level, he wouldn’t listen .

    This view reminds me of the politics in the USA. I don’t like it.

    and I commend Justin Trudeau for speaking his mind, and for soberly thinking about what happened.

    Trudeau’s jaded smile I think confirms what you’re saying Matt that we are used to this. He is totally unfazed and so is Harper.

  4. A society in a primordial state has its members locked into fealty of one another. The cost of modern society are the individuals at the liminal who lack any connection of gravity to the body social. Its easy for those on the outside to attack the emotions of those they won’t try to feel. Justin Trudeau reminds us that society is something cohesive where individuals are agreeable to one another. Solving this problem means considering petitioning that liminal space for its holistic reconstitution. This is the underlying principle behind spiritism. But it holds lessons for secular people.

  5. What I described is definitely the Canadian impulse of peace keeping and co-operation . I consider Harper to be a stain on our society and our values and I hope he is not our prime minister for much longer . and I think the U.S. mindset largely is insular and doesn’t consider that liminal space . the U.S. is plagued by demons and I think it is the fault of that society for being attacked from unseen enemies because the society doesn’t have that Canadian value certainly of shedding light on the wider world, facing the darkness, and trying to alleviate suffering.

    Americans don’t care. and if they don’t care about Mexico, or Canada, is it any wonder that they’re being attacked from the darkness without

  6. Ebert’s argument is flawed. 70 years ago the whole world was at war. 700 years ago one third of Europe died because of an epidemic. The idea that we have just entered an age characterized by catastrophe is preposterous. We think we live in more turbulent times because of the 24/7 news cycle and the global perspective we have acquired after the industrial and digital revolutions in travel and communications. Two centuries ago a disastrous event in Texas would not be correlated with a disastrous event in Boston, even if they happened within the same 24 or 48 hours. In addition, and without any intention of sounding callous, an event leaving 3 or 5 people dead would not be considered disastrous a few centuries ago, except by those immediately affected by it. Our current definitions of ‘tragedy’ and ‘disaster’ are significantly broader and applied more often.

    That said, certain societies deal better with collective trauma in the aftermath of violent terror or natural disaster. These societies tend to be more traditional and culturally cohesive. They also exaggerate less. The 2004 Tsunami left more than 200000 dead in a dozen countries. I would be more careful placing it the same context with natural disasters such as Hurricane Irene or events such as the BP oil spill.

  7. The surge in practice of spirit worship and exorcism after the Japanese tsunami and in Vietnam after the war is remarkable. Apocalypse bringing divinity into ppl lives again. Perhaps the two best modern examples. Also see the film Akira the Japanese anime exemplified this

  8. I remember the 1990s particularly for being a generation in a primordial kind state where we anticipated a better tomorrow. This is certainly different from modern day when we anticipate disasters all the time. The world has changed in 15 or so years.

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