I don’t know about you, but I was certainly surprised to discover that in the view of the Justice Department, two men I had never heard of, Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine, were the ones responsible for the April 20, 2010 explosion of a BP oil rig that caused millions of barrels of oil to leak into the Gulf of Mexico for months, polluting the waters and the shores and causing billions of dollars of damages. That is the clear implication of the decision to prosecute the two rig supervisors for manslaughter in the deaths of the eleven BP workers who perished in the blast.
Obviously, this makes no sense at all. Other government authorities have treated the BP spill as resulting from a complex series of errors, misjudgments, and regulatory violations on the part of several companies and their management teams. The allocation of responsibilities and damages will take years to unravel. How then can Kaluza and Vidrine, who are accused of disregarding abnormally high pressure readings that according to the government should have alerted them to the danger of a blowout at BP’s Macondo well, be the ones facing criminal charges and prison time? How can this be fair, just, or even possible?
It isn’t fair or just. It is possible because it is easier to finger the two middle-managers who inherited the flawed well equipment that was a ticking time bomb than to put a whole company, or many companies, behind bars. As the F.B.I. agent investigating the theft of the Declaration of Independence keeps telling Nicholas Cage’s treasure hunter in the Dan Brown rip-off movie “American Treasure,” “Somebody has to go to jail.” Kaluza and Vidrine may be the designated villains for the BP spill. Their only crime was one of moral luck: they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, the final links in a tangled chain of incompetence, corruption and miscalculations.
I reluctantly endorse the principle of scapegoats as a utilitarian necessity, but I hate the ethics of it from the standpoint of individual fairness and justice. Big, messy, history-making catastrophes have to teach societal lessons, and the seriousness of those lessons can only be recognized if there is an archival record of someone with a face, a name and a reputation paying a hefty price for the harm caused. It is difficult, not to mention unsatisfying, to punish organizations, which tend to suffer by paying huge amounts of money or going out of business. Everyone knows, however, that it wasn’t really the organization but its leadership, management and staff that really caused the disaster in question, in a dizzying tangle of bad luck, bad choices, and bad character that is usually impossible to decipher accurately. Thus it becomes essential to settle on one or more individuals to heap the blame on, so when fingers are pointed, they don’t have to point to an organizational chart. If someone with a face isn’t held accountable, then it seems like nobody is held accountable. A tragedy of horrifying proportions is just shrugged away, with a “These things happen” and an unsatisfactory “Nobody is to blame, and everyone is to blame.” Society can’t tolerate that, and it shouldn’t; it makes a mockery of justice and common sense. We send people to jail for muggings, but when billions are lost, lives lost, livelihoods ruined, and the nation traumatized, nothing but fines and firings? Never. We need scapegoats in such situations, and usually we find them. If someone, a real person, isn’t punished and hard, then the tragedy is trivialized, and the likelihood of it recurring increases.
In 1865, the end of the Civil War brought shocking photographs of barely living Northern prisoners of war in the Confederacy’s Andersonville, Georgia, prison. The images were beyond horrible, nightmare pictures of living skeletons, and the subsequent accounts of the abuse and neglect the men suffered made many readers physically ill. Confederate Captain Henry Wirz, the man left in charge of running the prison, was tried by a military tribunal in the first official war crimes trial, found guilty, and hanged. He was a convenient villain, a German immigrant with a thick accent, an unimaginative functionary who followed orders in an impossible situation. Everyone on the tribunal, in all likelihood, knew that Wirz could have no more prevented his charges from starving than he could flap his arms and fly; indeed, they knew that conditions at Northern prison camps were equally inhuman for the Confederate prisoners warehoused there. They also knew that had they been in Wirz’s place, they probably would have acted no differently than he did. It didn’t matter, certainly not to the public screaming for “justice.” The photographs showed that there had been an intolerable and obscene crime against humanity, and somebody had to pay. Somebody had to hang, in fact, and unfortunately for Henry Wirz, it was him.
The ethics conflict between accountability and fairness is one of the most difficult there is. It is dangerous to society’s values to allow responsibility for a massive disaster and human tragedy to be diffused through so many actors and agents that in the eyes of history, no one is held accountable. Yet in situations where the responsibility really is complex and diffuse, a collision of bad management, human error and chance, representing it to be otherwise is unfair and unjust to the designated villains. Admiral Kimmel wasn’t responsible for Pearl Harbor. Brig. Gen. Janis L. Karpinski wasn’t to blame for Abu Ghraib. Henry Wirz didn’t cause the prisoner abuse at Andersonville. The Nuremberg defendants couldn’t have stopped the Holocaust, and George W. Bush wasn’t the reason for the housing meltdown in 2008.
Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine weren’t the cause of the BP oil rig explosion and spill, either.
But somebody’s got to go to jail.
Facts: Washington Post
Graphic: Fulton Schools
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