Column on Justice and BP

Justice and BP

Tibor R. Machan

It is very probable that BP and its associated firms will be found guilty of malpractice and assessed major fines and punishment. However, this hasn’t yet happened so it’s premature to punish BP at this point. Nor is it the role of the President of the U.S. to act as prosecutor, judge and jury in this case or any other. Where is due process in all of what he and Congress have been doing lately? Or has an anti-British or anti-business attitude wiped out the need for justice? Urging or imploring–even attempting to persuade–BP to set up the $20 billion fund could be a good idea but treating this as demanded by justice is utterly misguided. There should be no compromise of principle even in the heat of anger and the grips of outrage and sorrow. It is imperative to wait until the verdict is in.

Many moons ago President Richard Nixon lashed out at Charles Manson after he learned of the carnage but before the law could get at the mass murderer. The president told reporters that Manson was "guilty, directly or indirectly of eight murders." Manson’s defense team then went on to argue in court that such a statement by the president undermined the possibility of a fair trial. The defense motioned for a mistrial, insisting that the charges against Manson be dropped but the judge, Older, denied it.

Interestingly the following day in court Manson displayed a paper, headlined "Manson Guilty, Nixon Declares," presumably in the hopes of producing a mistrial but instead the judge questioned jurors concerning their reactions and determined that they could remain impartial. He did sentence one of the attorneys to three nights in jail as punishment for leaving the paper in Manson’s reach.

Why mention all this? A case like the oil spill will generate a long and intricate legal process and many of those who have suffered from the explosion and the spill will need to have it heard and decided expeditiously and President Obama’s and Congress’ treatment of BP could very well pose obstacles to a speedy resolution and due compensation. It is doubtful that this would be welcome, especially by those most effected by the catastrophe.

It seems, however, that politicians cannot resist capitalizing on events like this one. Just as White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel suggested, do not let a disaster go unexploited. However, there can be serious downside to this attitude, since rushing to judgment can backfire and BP’s attorneys, who would naturally want to lessen any losses this disaster will cost the company, could exploit it in the course of the trials sure to follow. Nor need one view this cynically–it is, first of all, the job of those attorney’s to see to it that BP gets what amounts to a legal fair shake; second, objectively speaking, it is still to be determined what and who is responsible for what happened.

Yes, one would wish to be able to point a finger with no complications but that could turn out to be a pipe dream here. However painful this is, especially to the families of those 11 who perished in the initial explosion and to all those who are suffering from the impact of the spill throughout the Gulf region, justice cannot be achieved without examining the situation in full. And that could take time.

Sadly, many, including most of the mainstream media, are more interested in a show of strong feelings from President Obama instead of warning him about muddying the legal waters of this case. In the long run, however, it will be far more important that true justice be done instead of publicly parading sincere yet very possibly badly targeted emotions.

One may suppose that those who have suffered from all this will be impervious to all such niceties as due process of law but even in the most extreme circumstances, as after a plane crash and a building or bridge collapse, the human thing to do is to remain as civilized as bearable. Emotions are perfectly appropriate, of course, but they are no substitute for what justice demands.

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