Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Glorifying Killers

There's some concern in Boston that terrorists will blow up an LNG tanker in the harbor:

The tankers carry fuel that could decimate everything within a 1.3-mile radius, putting neighborhoods including East Boston, Charlestown and the North End, in danger, Murphy said.
Perhaps, but why be so pessimistic? In 1947, Texas City was destroyed by an accidental explosion on board the SS Grandcamp, and today it's a booming refinery town!

The Boston Herald, having anticipated that Pollyannas like myself would downplay or relativize the terrorist threat, reminds us that it can happen here:
Yet one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center was launched from Logan International Airport, and al-Qaeda operative Raed Hijaz - one of the architects of the attack on the USS Cole - along with four other terrorists lived and worked in East Boston.
See? Terrorists have visited and even lived in Boston! If that doesn't prove that the city is on the brink of doom, I don't know what will.

I'm not arguing that terrorists can't or won't blow up an LNG tanker, of course. I'm just pointing out that the Herald's argument here is bizarre and manipulative. Obviously, whether or not a plane was hijacked from Logan on September 11 has no bearing whatsoever on the LNG debate. If this is a serious threat, it'd be serious even if no terrorist had ever set foot in Boston.

As bad as blowing up Boston would be, what if terrorists decided to kill us all with bioweapons?
New technology that would give terrorists the power to create deadly bacteria and viruses from scratch is only years away from completion and threatens to make existing controls on biological weapons obsolete, experts warned yesterday.
It's all very frightening, I'm sure. And yet, if you suggest in the face of these perils that America's public-health system should be improved, instead of defunded, or that the public should have more input into the siting and regulation of natural gas terminals, you'll probably be called a Frenchified socialist dead-ender and a Chicken Little. Somehow, the doomsday scenarios that oblige the public to embrace torture and warrantless wiretapping are less compelling when they're invoked in support of citizens' rights and the social contract.

Speaking of doomsday scenarios, people are also worrying about the quasi-presence on MySpace of Texan death-row inmates. The fear seems to be that these pages will make killing people seem "hep":
"Is it within your policy to allow the glorification of killers by giving them a platform to influence young minds?" Mr. Kahan wrote.
This is an interesting argument. Supporters of capital punishment usually hail it as a deterrent. But I guess we're now supposed to view dabbling on MySpace while awaiting execution as high-gloss glamor on a par with the career of Kevin Federline. (God only knows how many schools will get shot up if kids find out that condemned murderers get to order anything they want for their final meal. Children are naturally wicious, after all.)

As far as influencing "young minds" goes, I tend to worry more about a political climate that fosters contempt for the rule of law, and exalts preemptive violence as a reasonable response to fear. MySpace may be "glorifying killers" by allowing the families of convicted murderers to set up pages on their behalf...but honestly, it barely registers against our culture's riotous celebration of war, vigilantism, and general asskicking as foolproof solutions to pretty much every problem under the sun.

The MySpace debate raises another interesting point. If these sites comprise a "glorification of killers," what should we call the sort of journalism that pornographically rehearses the infinite ways in which The Terrorists plan to kill us, attributes to them weapons and skills they almost certainly don't have, and passes off the ugly hysteria this engenders as patriotism?

Al-Qaeda's alleged to have very deep pockets indeed, but I doubt it could buy more effective PR than it gets gratis and free of charge from Western media and right-wing bloggers.

More about this later.

UPDATE: While we're on the subject of glorifying our enemies, Iran's leaders must be happy to learn that their country is now a superpower, according to CNN.


juniper pearl said...

I'm just pointing out that the Herald's argument here is bizarre and manipulative.

standard herald fare. i'd recommend that you, and everyone else, stay as far away from this rag as possible if you're looking for actual news. if you're in the mood for a high-caliber tabloid, on the other hand, then this is definitely the paper for you.

Anonymous said...

LNG upon being released starts to vaporize, although if it is contained within a diked area, it will freeze the ground underneath, which insulates the liquid from absorbing much heat from the ground, thus slowing the vaporization rate. Methane vapors then will likely find a source of ignition, and there will be the mother of all blue flames, but as long as none of the liquid and resulting vapors get into a confined space (such as a storm sewer)there will be no explosion. Radiation from the 1500 degree flames can create problems, but I doubt a spill on water would do much harm unless, again, radiational heating of nearby structures occurs or the liquid finds a way into a confined space. There were LNG-spill experiments at China Lake in the 1950s by the military, and they never could get methane in the open air from an LNG spill to explode. The calamitous LNG spill in Cleveland during WWII did get loose into a sewer and basements, and around 250 people were killed, but the liquid overtopped a dike after the storage tanks manufactured by Chicago Bridge & Iron failed because of the low temperature stresses from this cryogenic liquid. A gasoline spill of equal volume would have been much more energetic, and gasoline vapors, unlike methane vapors, hug the ground, increasing the area of threat. Gasoline also explodes in unconfined space upon ignition. An attack on an LNG tanker occurs at the end of "Syraica" or however you spell the name of the movie, but no explosion would have occurred, just a huge flaming area on the water (possibly bad enough, but nothing that would go boom).

Phila said...

An attack on an LNG tanker occurs at the end of "Syraica" or however you spell the name of the movie, but no explosion would have occurred, just a huge flaming area on the water (possibly bad enough, but nothing that would go boom).

I'd agree that it's hard to see how you'd get a pipe-bomb effect a la Texas City from an LNG tanker in Boston harbor, except that it'd make me objectively pro-terrorist.