Ukraine, East Palestine, and the Politics of Crisis
On February 3, in East Palestine, Ohio, a train derailed, leaving 38 train cars off the track and an additional 12 cars damaged by fire. Five of the railcars were at risk of exploding, so emergency crews performed a controlled release of vinyl chloride, a hazardous chemical compound connected to a deadly form of liver cancer. When burned, vinyl chloride reacts to form phosphene gas, which was used as a chemical weapon during World War I. Essentially, the town was gassed.
This created a real crisis for those in the small, eastern Ohio town. Residents were told to evacuate the area during the release, then were told it was safe to return on Feb. 9. But those assurances didn’t pacify East Palestine residents like Kim Hancock who, in an interview with the BBC, wondered, “How can they tell me that all is safe? There’s no way. I’m not dumb, I watched the smoke cloud come over my house.”
Video of contaminated creek water has many residents questioning whether their drinking water is safe even though officials have provided assurances that it is. Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown (D) said residents are “right to be skeptical” and encouraged them to test their own wells. Meanwhile, residents have reported rashes, sore throats, nausea, and headaches despite Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claims they have not detected harmful levels of contaminants in the air.
Perhaps adding to the skepticism is the slow and tepid nature of the emotional support people in the town have received.
It took 13 days for someone from the Biden administration to even visit, which is the political version of saying, “Ok. Fine. I’ll come if I must.” Meanwhile, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg downplayed the situation by stating there are roughly 1,000 instances of train derailment each year in America, a comment which obviously misses the point. Hazardous materials expert Sil Caggiano told Fox News that what happened in East Palestine “looks like a nuclear winter.” He added, “We nuked this town with chemicals.” That doesn’t happen 1,000 times a year, and Pete Buttigieg knows it.
The relative indifference from the Biden administration is even more curious in light of the fact that only a few weeks ago the administration was sounding the alarm over the danger of gas stoves. When you’re worked up by gas stoves but relatively indifferent to the impact from a chemical assault on one of your towns, something is amiss. Adding further insult to injury was the fact that President Biden just made a surprise visit to Ukraine, which has already received $100 billion from U.S. taxpayers and is much further away than East Palestine, Ohio.
This isn’t to say the federal government is doing nothing. Despite denial of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds because this is not a natural disaster, government resources are being provided for the clean-up and recovery effort. But East Palestine is receiving none of the emotional support one might expect under the circumstances. The president can’t make a personal call every time something bad happens, but it is the president’s job to mourn with those who mourn. He has shown a willingness to do so, especially if you are a victim of gun violence (see here, here, here, and here). What’s clear is that President Biden sees no value in taking pictures with these victims.
It may or may not be relevant that Claremont County Ohio, where East Palestine is located, voted for Trump over Biden by more than two-to-one in the 2020 presidential election. This is precisely the kind of community Hillary Clinton was referring to when she called Trump supporters a “basket of deplorables,” characterized by “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic” views. More recently, President Biden said, “This MAGA crowd is really the most extreme political organization that’s existed in American history, in recent American history.”
This doesn’t mean that President Biden hoped bad things would happen or isn’t uninterested in their recovery. The fact is, he says a lot of things he doesn’t really mean and many of his word choices were written for him because focus group testing said these were the things you needed to say to motivate your base for the midterms. Nevertheless, actions have consequences, and when you’ve spent a lot of time talking about how awful huge sections of the country are, you create the possibility that things could get awkward when those people need help and you’re their president.
It is possible President Biden came to believe the terrible things he said about those who didn’t vote for him, or maybe he prefers not to meet them face to face to avoid being held accountable for the things he’s said. Or maybe he just doesn’t care enough to visit because there’s no conceivable political benefit from doing so.
Either way, this situation shows the wisdom in the adage that you shouldn’t say anything about someone you won’t say to their face. President Biden has said a lot of things about Americans that are easier said from the safety of a Secret Service-protected podium than to someone’s face. But sometimes, when you’re president, there comes a need to step out from behind the podium and help people in need.
Sometimes those people didn’t vote for you. Comforting those people is easier if you haven’t spent years talking about how dangerous they are. But if you have spent years talking about how dangerous they are, and those people find themselves the victims of a catastrophic chemical assault, you may decide it’s better to go to Ukraine instead.
Joseph Backholm is Senior Fellow for Biblical Worldview and Strategic Engagement at Family Research Council.