Modest Proposals: Fertile Attraction

Pulling the common thread


President Clinton and lawmakers on Capitol Hill are struggling to deal with the fallout from the number-one issue of the day: the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

The president and some members of Congress are calling for sweeping powers of surveillance, to keep undesirable domestic groups under control. Others are drafting anti- terrorist legislation to address the threat of sabotage from abroad. All say they are working to protect the nation from those who would kill innocent children, and even babies.

These approaches, however, ignore the common thread that runs through the two major acts of terrorism in recent U.S. history, the Oklahoma City bombing and the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. This common thread is what enabled criminals to manufacture the terrible devices that killed and maimed dozens, including innocent children and even babies.

This common thread is fertilizer.

The Oklahoma City and World Trade Center bombings were the product of cheap and readily available fertilizer. Criminals and deranged individuals can walk into fertilizer stores throughout America, put down their cash, and walk out with fertilizer to build hideous devices of death, no questions asked.

How many more urban terrorist catastrophes must be seared into the nation's conscience before action is taken? The federal government can act—if it has the will—to confront the peril by placing this hazardous substance under immediate and strict federal control.

There are a number of approaches that might work. The most effective, of course, would be to outlaw completely the production, sale, and use of fertilizer. This would go a long way toward eliminating the potential for terrorist bombs, but it might have unfortunate side effects, since peaceable citizens would be affected.

Indeed, we must recognize that most people use fertilizer for legitimate and peaceful purposes. And law-abiding fertilizer users should be assured that they will not be denied access to and use of fertilizer. It is only the lawless users of fertilizer who must be targeted. A complete ban would unduly penalize the majority of Americans, who obey the law and use their fertilizer properly. A sensible middle ground between a draconian total ban and today's unregulated lawlessness must be found.

One such solution would be to limit, not ban outright, fertilizer sales. This would prevent undesirable and disturbed individuals from purchasing this dangerous substance. For a start, convicted felons and the mentally ill could be barred from access to fertilizer. And prohibiting the export of fertilizer or its sale to foreign nationals would keep fertilizer out of the hands of overseas terrorists.

Thankfully, modern technology can be employed to make certain that fertilizer only reaches legitimate users. Those who want to buy fertilizer might be required to obtain Fertilizer Control (FC) cards from the government. These cards would limit sales to legitimate customers and keep fertilizer out of the hands of murderous terrorists. Fertilizer ownership must be treated as the privilege that it is, not a universal right.

For the convenience of law-abiding Americans, FC cards could be obtained when we obtain or renew our driver's licenses—President Clinton would do well to propose a Motor Fertilizer Control bill. And to minimize inconvenience to legitimate fertilizer buyers, the FC cards should be equipped with high-tech magnetic stripes or computer chips so they could be swiped through FC terminals in each licensed fertilizer dealer for instant background checks.

This would focus attention where it is due: on the malefactors who buy fertilizer with only evil in mind. And in all candor, we know who they are. Arab terrorists are easy to spot, and they must not be able to obtain FC cards. After all, Arabs all live in the desert, where, as we know, they have no legitimate reason to use fertilizer. Right-wing hate groups are likewise easy to spot because they usually cluster in isolated parts of the Rocky Mountains, the southwestern desert, and other places where there is no topsoil to speak of. So there is no reason they should be allowed to purchase, possess, or sell fertilizer.

Urban gangs are another example, since we know those who live in cities have no lawful need for fertilizer. To deal with urban gangs, major American cities, starting with New York and Washington, could be encouraged to exceed the federal FC standards with tough municipal ordinances mandating strict local fertilizer control rules. (To protect city residents who might use fertilizer in their flower pots or garden plots, small amounts of fertilizer might be exempt from federal and city controls.)

Then there is a problem of financing the fertilizer initiative: Because of the federal budget deficit, Congress could pass along the cost of the program to states or local governments. This is one area where a federal program could best be carried out by localities. Who better than one's neighbors should decide whether you should be allowed to have fertilizer?

Still, in the end, the fertilizer problem must be recognized as a national problem. And as such, it should be the focus of a coordinated inter-agency federal effort. Fertilizer is used to grow crops, and some traces could find their way into food eaten by innocent children (including babies). So the Food and Drug Administration should be part of the federal joint fertilizer strike force, perhaps to license fertilizer manufacturers. The FDA could be empowered to seize all fertilizer produced by unlicensed companies, and to confiscate all of those companies' profits, retroactively, to deter those who would be tempted by corporate greed to conspire with terrorists.

And because fertilizer can damage the environment, the Environmental Protection Agency could be enlisted to help in the detection and enforcement effort. The Justice Department, too, could add fertilizer to the list of substances under the jurisdiction of the Drug Enforcement Administration, because of the DEA's experience in hunting down and arresting traffickers in dangerous substances.

The U.S. Postal Service, too, can be enlisted. Just as they already seize explicit depictions of sexual acts, postal workers could be empowered to seize explicit depictions of fertilizer and fertilizer-related acts, and to keep fertilizer information out of the hands of would-be terrorists.

Since some evildoers may choose to use private mail services, federal authorities may also need to examine UPS and Federal Express shipments to check for violations of FC. And the FBI may need to eavesdrop on telephone traffic, to learn who may be conspiring by fax or conference call to obtain illicit fertilizer.

Similarly, with the rapid growth of Internet, the proximity of university Internet terminals to college chemistry laboratories, and increasing use of Internet by innocent children (including babies), all online communication must also be monitored.

But among federal agencies, the Treasury Department must take the lead through an expanded Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Fertilizer. The BATFF would be able to build on its existing network of enforcement offices around the country, easily adding fertilizer to its list of hazards from which the American public must be protected.

There will, of course, be naysayers and nitpickers who will claim this is some infringement of their constitutional rights. Nonsense: Nowhere in the Constitution is there any explicit right to own fertilizer. Some, perhaps including the American Civil Liberties Union, may try to construe fertilizer ownership as protected by the constitutional privacy right. But such an alleged right is not found in the Constitution, and its existence is at best ambiguous.

In any event, the Constitution was written long before fertilizer was used by criminals to create explosives, and as legal scholars tell us, it must be a "living" document. The Constitution can only be interpreted as permitting the government to maintain order through fertilizer control.

Besides, the politics of fertilizer control will be irresistible. The narrow technical argument of musty academics and legalistic extremists will be swept away by television news clips showing the dead and injured, especially the horrifying images of innocent children (including babies) who were maimed and killed by these heinous instances of fertilizer abuse.

This should sweep through Congress and be signed by the president by autumn. And then the nation can turn its attention to another threat to the nation's children, an annual threat that has silently crept up on the nation, as stealthily as the most insidious Arab terrorist.

That threat is ice.

Every winter, hundreds fall through the ice that forms quietly, imperceptibly, on rivers, lakes, and ponds. Many children (including babies) can die gruesome deaths by drowning. Congress can act to address this menace and have a bill on the president's desk by midwinter. There is no time to lose.

Adam Clayton Powell III (adam@ffnyc.mhs.compuserve.com) is director of technology studies and programs at the Freedom Forum.