Geoff Rips: Random But Inevitable Acts of Violence and Cruelty

(Fourteen are dead and 200 injured after the West Fertilizer Plant exploded last week.)

Everyone I know usually stops in West, Texas, on the otherwise barren trip from Austin to Dallas or Fort Worth (Waco notwithstanding), drawn by the Czech bakeries just off the highway. The biggest advertises “We Gotcha Kolache!” I go for the poppy seed kolache every time.

Today the bakeries are still standing and providing the locals and the first responders with sustenance. Across the highway is the town’s motel, the Czech Inn. This is the center of a large Czech population that once included Sissy Spacek and Rip Torn. West is the birthplace of Czech outfielder Scott Podsenick of the Chicago White Sox. Also one of those guys who played the accordion on Lawrence Welk is purported to have grown up near here. Every fall, polka is king as dancers come from miles around for West Fest.

Every once in a while these guys are going to explode. And if they get outside inspiration, they can attach a larger cause to their despicable acts.

So how does this connect to the Tsarnaev brothers’ terrorism in Boston? I couldn’t help thinking last night that the tragic killings are both born from powerlessness. The brothers came from an uncontrollably violent nation where school-fulls of children were killed. The older brother apparently felt alienated in this country while others pulled the strings that ran his life. While he rose to the top of regional Golden Gloves competition, he reportedly couldn’t get along with some family members. Your typical outsider scenario with built-in anger probably over many things, some personal, some geopolitical. Every once in a while these guys are going to explode. And if they get outside inspiration, they can attach a larger cause to their despicable acts.

And the good citizens of West? They’re conservative. Their county voted 64-35 for Romney in 2013 and 64-34 for Ted Cruz, who said on Friday that “it would be a mistake to rush to conclusions” before deciding if more regulation is needed.

They live in a town in which the fertilizer plant sits near the high school, the middle school, and an old folks home. It was close to the center of town and right beside the railroad tracks. It had been fined by the EPA and the state for multiple, apparently minor, offenses over the past 20 years, for which it paid a total of $2,500. After these indiscretions, the plant was allowed by the EPA to self-report in 2011 that it had no safety concerns. Despite the fact that it sells blended fertilizer, cause of a major fire and town evacuation in nearby Bryan in 2009. Despite the fact that it sits right in the middle of town. In the middle of town! With so little regulatory oversight, this was a random act of violence that was going to occur somewhere—secondarily perpetrated by lawmakers and corporate lobbyists and regulatory agencies with little muscle or will to enforce.


These acts seem random, unexplainable. Their timing and location don’t make sense to most of us. But the world wasn’t making sense to the Tsarnaev brothers. They weren’t part of it. And the fact that a ticking time bomb was located in the middle of their town now probably makes no sense to the good citizens of West.

What you end up with is random but inevitable acts of violence and cruelty in a world that makes sense only to those who run it temporarily for their own purposes—the illusory order they command for the sake of their own profit and power, let the chips fall where they may.


Geoff Rips is a former editor of the Texas Observer.


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