Madness, Evil, Disaster, Haste and Uncertainty: Poison, Bombs, Fire and Reckless Reporting Shape A Strange and Tragic Week

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“Truth is confirmed by inspection and delay; falsehood by haste and uncertainty.”  Tacitus

It was a strange and surreal day and week. It was a day where people sought answers but only found more questions. Questions about evil, madness and of accidental disaster. Questions ultimately about truth and responsibility.

Madness?

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Today the FBI announced the apprehension of an Elvis impersonator named Paul Kevin Curtis in relation to a number of letters containing the deadly poison Ricin to Mississippi Republican Senator Roger Wicker, President Obama and a judge in Mississippi. According to his family Curtis had a long history of mental illness, specifically that he is diagnosed as Bi-Polar. Evidently he was quite a talented entertainer and had been a finalist in a number of Elvis impersonation contests in Las Vegas. Senator Wicker said that he has met Curtis and had once hired Curtis to perform at a party. Wicker noted that Curtis “was very entertaining.”

Disaster

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Meanwhile in the small town of West, Texas near Waco emergency crews and citizens were sifting through the rubble of a fertilizer storage facility, homes, apartment buildings and a nursing home. Yesterday evening a fire broke out at the facility triggering a massive explosion that registered 2.1 on the Richter Scale, was felt 70 miles away. Casualty figures are still unclear. The town’s mayor is reporting tonight that as many as 35 people, 10 being fire fighters and other first responders died in the blast and that about 160 were injured. The town is devastated, large areas are destroyed or heavily damaged. Governor Rick Perry has asked President Obama to declare the county a disaster area.

Evil

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In Boston, as the city mourned and people gathered at an ecumenical prayer service in memory of the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing the FBI released pictures and video of the two suspects in the case. The FBI as well as city and state officials have asked citizens for their help in identifying the men who are believed responsible for the killing of three people and the wounding of more than 170 others.

Haste and Uncertainty

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Hasty and False Accusations

In all of these events there is an underlying element of uncertainty that unsettles people, and not only those directly affected but those who are exposed to them even from afar. In the midst of the unfolding tragedies people have a need for answers. After all such events, especially coming so closely on the heels of one another are unsettling and bring about in some the desire to find an answer immediately, to act with haste and recklessness to find an answer.

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Ricin Letter

Unfortunately haste and reckless attempts to find answers usually compound already tragic situations which could still be open ended. That may not be the case in the situation of Mr Curtis who has been taken into custody and linked directly to the poisoned letters. But let us suppose for a moment that even a mentally ill man could be falsely accused, or that he could have been working with others who are still on the loose. This does not appear to be the case, but there are many instances where people have been falsely accused.

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In the case of the explosion in Texas things appear to point to an accidental fire which spread and set off a massive explosion. Of course that is the presumption but even here officials have to rule out an act of malfeasance or criminality, even as they continue recovery efforts and the search for victims. The fact that the area was a storage area for the volatile Ammonium Nitrate, the same substance used by Timothy McVeigh to destroy the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

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Murrah Federal Building and Timothy McVeigh

In a bizarre twist of irony the worst industrial accident ever, the Texas City disaster of April 16th 1947.  On that day an explosion of Ammonium Nitrate being loaded onto a ship killed over 600 people and injured another 5000. Several ships were sunk, the port destroyed and hundreds of homes and businesses devastated.

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Texas City Disaster

The sad thing is that while the West disaster is probably not a criminal act, it was something that might have been preventable had any outside safety regulations or inspection regime been in place. The last Federal safety inspection of the plant took place 28 years ago. The plant was cited and fined in 2006 for not having a risk management plan in place, despite the presence of an elementary school a very short distance away. The management self reported that risk was minimal.

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Finally in the case of the Boston Marathon bombing many people and some media outlets rushed to judgement before the FBI and other law enforcement agencies that are part of the Joint Task Force investigating released its pictures and videos. The New York Post misidentified two young men, one a high school student as suspects on its front page. Numerous bloggers and others posted photos of people in many cases calling them suspects or even guilt parties based on their very limited powers of observation and more than limited knowledge of the event, area and circumstances of the attack. The Post and those others have caused great distress in the lives of innocent people by acting in haste and rushing to judgement. It should be noted that neither the Post or any blogger has apologized to the people that they have falsely accused who are not considered suspects by law enforcement.

I think as I watched the coverage of all of these events this week and looked back at other terrorist attacks and industrial disasters that have taken place in my lifetime I was struck by how surreal they all appeared, especially since they happened in such a short period of time. When one adds in other events such as the continued tensions in North Korea surrounding its nuclear program and ongoing threats to South Korea, Japan and the United States.

It is a strange time, but if we are to find the truth in all of these cases we have to be careful not to jump to conclusions. History shows time and time again how when people and nations rush to judgement that many times much greater tragedy unfolds.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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