"Things fall apart," William Butler Yeats wrote. "The center cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned." He could have been talking about us, about this past week in America, about what happens when madness, greed and fear combine and conspire to show us what it looks like when the gates of Hell crack open.
Two separate incidents took place in two different parts of the country. The least severe of the two was merely an attempted car bombing in New York's Times Square. An alert T-shirt vendor observed a parked SUV with smoke pouring out of it, and raised the alarm. When authorities arrived, they discovered the car was filled with propane tanks, fireworks and fertilizer that were wired to cheap alarm clocks intended to be detonators. Had it gone off, police say, the resulting fireball could have caused considerable death, injury and damage.
Fortunately, the attempt was thwarted, but the consequences of what could have been are daunting to consider. The event raised the specter of Bush-era "Red Alert" and the possible declaration of martial law. For the last decade, a pile of laws and executive orders have been passed and signed making it spectacularly easy for the government to suspend the Constitution in the event of terrorist activity. Had that bomb gone off, we could very well have seen troops in the streets, and the end of the rule of law as we have known it.
The second event has some people talking, quite literally, about the end of the world.
Several days ago, a British Petroleum oil rig exploded and sank off the Gulf coast, killing 11 workers and creating what experts are describing as one of the largest oil spill in history. According to the Mobile Press-Register:
A confidential government report on the unfolding spill disaster in the Gulf makes clear the Coast Guard now fears the well could become an unchecked gusher shooting millions of gallons of oil per day into the Gulf.
"The following is not public," reads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's [NOAA] Emergency Response document dated April 28. "Two additional release points were found today in the tangled riser. If the riser pipe deteriorates further, the flow could become unchecked resulting in a release volume an order of magnitude higher than previously thought."
Asked Friday to comment on the document, NOAA spokesman Scott Smullen said that the additional leaks described were reported to the public late Wednesday night. Regarding the possibility of the spill becoming an order of magnitude larger, Smullen said, "I'm letting the document you have speak for itself."
In scientific circles, an order of magnitude means something is 10 times larger. In this case, an order of magnitude higher would mean the volume of oil coming from the well could be 10 times higher than the 5,000 barrels a day coming out now. That would mean 50,000 barrels a day, or 2.1 million gallons a day. It appears the new leaks mentioned in the Wednesday release are the leaks reported to the public late Wednesday night.
"There is no official change in the volume released but the USCG is no longer stating that the release rate is 1,000 barrels a day," continues the document, referred to as report No. 12. "Instead they are saying that they are preparing for a worst-case release and bringing all assets to bear."
The emergency document also states that the spill has grown in size so quickly that only 1 to 2 percent of it has been sprayed with dispersants. The Press-Register obtained the emergency report from a government official. The White House, NOAA, the Coast Guard and BP Plc did not immediately return calls for comment made early this morning. The worst-case scenario for the broken and leaking well pouring oil into the Gulf of Mexico would be the loss of the wellhead and kinked piping currently restricting the flow to 5,000 barrels - or 210,000 gallons - per day.
If that happens, according to this article from Pure Energy Systems, you can turn out the lights, because we're all done. Birds, bees, you, me, and everything else on planet Earth could be facing mass extinction:
The original estimate was about 5,000 gallons of oil a day spilling into the ocean. Now they're saying 200,000 gallons a day. That's over a million gallons of crude oil a week! I'm an engineer with 25 years of experience. I've worked on some big projects with big machines. Maybe that's why this mess is so clear to me.
First, the BP platform was drilling for what they call deep oil. They go out where the ocean is about 5,000 feet deep and drill another 30,000 feet into the crust of the earth. This it right on the edge of what human technology can do. Well, this time they hit a pocket of oil at such high pressure that it burst all of their safety valves all the way up to the drilling rig and then caused the rig to explode and sink. Take a moment to grasp the import of that. The pressure behind this oil is so high that it destroyed the maximum effort of human science to contain it.
When the rig sank it flipped over and landed on top of the drill hole some 5,000 feet under the ocean. Now they've got a hole in the ocean floor, 5,000 feet down with a wrecked oil drilling rig sitting on top of is spewing 200,000 barrels of oil a day into the ocean. Take a moment and consider that, will you!
First they have to get the oil rig off the hole to get at it in order to try to cap it. Do you know the level of effort it will take to move that wrecked oil rig, sitting under 5,000 feet of water? That operation alone would take years and hundreds of millions to accomplish. Then, how do you cap that hole in the muddy ocean floor? There just is no way. No way.
The only piece of human technology that might address this is a nuclear bomb. I'm not kidding. If they put a nuke down there in the right spot it might seal up the hole. Nothing short of that will work. If we can't cap that hole that oil is going to destroy the oceans of the world. It only takes one quart of motor oil to make 250,000 gallons of ocean water toxic to wildlife. Are you starting to get the magnitude of this?
These statements may well be nothing more than hyper-exaggerated fear mongering, but it is more than enough to give one pause. The problem is happening thousands of feet below the surface of the sea, and stopping the spill is apparently going to take a spectacular feat of engineering. Until it happens, the spill will continue to spread, and an already battered Gulf region is going to take yet another savage pounding.
You have to figure President Obama is kicking himself, and his advisers, for making that ill-timed announcement about opening up offshore oil drilling. To his credit, he has put that little project on hold, and given the magnitude of this Gulf disaster, it seems safe to say we won't be seeing any new rigs appearing on the horizon anytime soon. If Noel is correct in his assessment, however, it won't matter one way or the other.
A third event took place in my own back yard this weekend that was not nearly as severe as a car bomb or an unchecked oil spill, but it chilled me to the bone nonetheless, and got me thinking long and hard about New York and the Gulf and the state of the nation itself. A few miles west of my home, a massive aqueduct broke and wiped out the water supply for two million people in the greater Boston area. The news was covered with warnings to boil water before drinking or preparing food. My wife and I have been doing exactly that, and we have had all the water we need.
A day after the water main break, however, the news became filled with stories of a darker nature. Apparently, people all over the city were getting into brawls in supermarkets trying to buy bottled water. I saw it myself at a Stop & Shop on Sunday afternoon when I went in to by paper towels; the place was stuffed with hyper-aggressive, panicky people pushing and shoving each other over bottled water they didn't really need to buy. They assumedly all had stoves and pots and taps and refrigerators in their homes, but instead, they dove into riot status and made a bad situation significantly worse.
It was sickening to behold, and says many things about our national character that are deeply uncomfortable to contemplate. An unknown person filled with hate tried to blow up Times Square. A shabbily-run oil rig might literally kill us all. A water crisis turned ordinary people into greedy, pushy animals right before my eyes.
The center cannot hold.