In the Wake Of The BP Disaster, Another Andersonville Trial

Someone has to be held responsible, even if nobody is to blame.

Someone has to be held responsible, even if nobody is to blame.

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

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at  jamproethics@verizon.net.

13 thoughts on “In the Wake Of The BP Disaster, Another Andersonville Trial

  1. “I reluctantly endorse the principle of scapegoats as a utilitarian necessity…” I think not. “The buck stops here” was the sign of a principled President, not that we’ve seen any of that lately, since everything nowadays seems to be Bush’s fault, INCLUDING the housing meltdown in 2008, don’t ya know. I believe the moral depravity of our American system gone rogue is EXACTLY that noone seems to take responsibility for ANY of their actions. The CEO of corporations or Presidents of nations would do well to “be a man” and take the responsibility for such adverse outcomes, precisely BECAUSE they set the moral framework of the company, or the government which they supposedly lead. The United States today would have had some chance of avoiding its now-inevitable decline into the abyss if we had HAD such leaders in the post-Reagan era. But, alas, we haven’t.

  2. 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?

    I would hope it is because evidence suggests that they did their jobs in an “unlawful manner” or “without due caution and circumspection”, 18 U.S.C. § 1112, caused the deaths of those workers.

    Our need for scapegoats must be subordinate to the rule of law.

  3. Agreed. As an historical note, it was actually to Wirz’s credit that he did all in his power to alleviate the conditions at Andersonville after he was appointed as camp commandant. It’s also to the credit of local citizens and pastors that they parted with what little they had in order to help men who were, after all, foreign invaders. It’s just that neither side was prepared to handle the numbers of prisoners taken during a war unprecedented for the size of its armies. This was exacerbated when the North broke off the previous system of prisoner exchanges in order to starve the South of its excellent soldiers. In the process, they condemned prisoners of war from both sides to terrible deprivations. Executing Wirz after a trumped up trial was one way for northern authorities to cover up the fact that they bore the primary responsibility for this tragedy. With the South subdued, they were free to claim as a scapegoat a minor, foreign born Confederate officer who was in command of the most notoriously propagandized of all the camps.

    • It wasn’t just “Northern authorities,” it was Lincoln and Grant. In the letter exchange, Lincoln admits that it will be hard on Union prisoners not to have exchanges. Talk about an understatement. Wirz is the epitome of a scapegoat.

      • It wasn’t just “Northern authorities,” it was Lincoln and Grant. In the letter exchange, Lincoln admits that it will be hard on Union prisoners not to have exchanges. Talk about an understatement. Wirz is the epitome of a scapegoat.

        And this use of scapegoats is unethical.

  4. True. I was just trying to be non-controversial! But I don’t doubt that a number of other Union leaders (including field commanders who’d been trounced regularly by Lee) were supportive. They probably saw this as a necessary sacrifice, but did not wish for this to be bandied around after the war. This may have been one of the reasons for the harshness of the occupation and the frequent political tactic of “waving the bloody shirt”.

            • Also, did not ,a href=”https://ethicsalarms.com/2013/02/17/judge-ken-anderson-a-judge-with-an-ethical-obligation-to-resign/”> Ken Anderson want to avoid the appearance of no accountability?

              For Ken Anderson felt that “somebody’s got to go to jail” for the murder of Christine Morton. Nevermind that Michael Morton was not the cause. Michael Morton’s only “crime was one of moral luck”. He was at the wrong place at the wrong time. After all, Christine Morton’s death has to “to teach societal lessons”, Her death can not be “shrugged away, with a “These things happen” and an unsatisfactory “Nobody is to blame, and everyone is to blame.” It does “matter, certainly not to the public screaming for “justice.” Society can’t tolerate that, and it shouldn’t; it makes a mockery of justice and common sense. “. “The photographs” of Christine Morton’s autopsy “showed that there had been an intolerable and obscene crime against humanity, and somebody had to pay”. Ken Anderson felt that “somebody had to pay”, and if withholding evidence from the defense would ensure that “somebody had to pay”, so be it.

              And yet, even though Ken Anderson did exactly what you justified, you criticized him.

              So ethics demands that you either completely repudiate this post, emphatically stating under absolutely no circumstances should an innocent person be blamed for wrongdoing, or you apologize to Ken Anderson for criticizing him for doing what you yourself justified in this post.

              The whole thing is that you really did not have to “justify” scapegoating to justify a prosecution of Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine for manslaughter. If there is credible evidence that they disregarded ” abnormally high pressure readings that according to the government should have alerted them to the danger of a blowout at BP’s Macondo well”, then that would constitute gross negligence which would support a manslaughter charge, and it would be completely consistent with individual justice and fairness to charge them based upon this evidence.

              The heart of our Constitution’s Bill of Rights is individual justice and fairness. That was the message of the recently late Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird. That is the message of every civil rights organization. To sacrifice our rights, to sacrifice individual justice and fairness, due process of law, and presumption of innocence, just for the sake of appearances. would be effectively nullify the sacrifices of those of our servicemen who gave all.

              Of course, if you still choose to stand by this post, perhaps you can visit a VA hospital and tell a veteran who is totally disabled that it is okay sacrifice the rights that he fought for for the sake of appearances. Walter Reed is not far from where you live.

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