When a man kills another most of us know something has gone seriously wrong. We also know that, unless strong evidence of self-defense exists, prosecutors press charges—and rightly so. We should all agree that nothing more valuable in life exists than human life itself. And when one man acts as though another’s life is less important than his own and, in fact, is available to be sacrificed for selfish ends, this is the essence of evil.
But modern American culture sees deaths caused by those hiding behind the corporate crime shield very differently.
If a person dies because corporate decision makers recklessly pursue profit, prosecutors seldom do more than pursue civil remedies against corporate executives. If a group of men got together to rob a bank and they blew up eleven people in the commission of their crime, prosecutors in many states will mention the death penalty early and often. The men can protest all they want about the fact that they didn’t mean to hurt anyone and the explosion wasn’t their fault and that the government actually accidentally set off the explosion. Even if all this were true, we don’t care, because they set out to rob a bank. Everything else that happened occurred only because of the original evil intent. Now change those bank robbers into corporate executives—put them in suits, but leave the greedy plan to act recklessly in place and watch the criminal prosecutors disappear.
Am I exaggerating? Well, let’s look at BP and see what we find. Greedy executives ran a recklessly unsafe company for years and bodies piled up around them. In March 2005, BP’s Texas City refinery blew up and took 15 workers to their graves. It left 200 more injured. After others lost their lives the government swooped in to pronounce unsafe conditions abounded. The evidence clearly showed that BP took a knowing risk to place others in jeopardy while BP executives listened to the siren song of increased profits at safety’s expense. No jail time for any executives resulted. No death penalty for anyone at BP except the poor workers who lost their lives at the hands of BP’s reckless and greedy plan.
The 2010 disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is more of the same. BP, working its well-worn plan of safety last, managed to kill eleven oil workers. BP has a duty to keep its employees and its community safe. But BP executives need not worry that the communal standards of proper conduct apply to them. For they know they belong to a protected class. If there is collateral damage from their decisions, they know they will fair far better than simple criminals who haven’t yet figured out that “incorporated” provides irrational immunity for even the worst outcomes.
It isn’t logical—unless, of course, the pursuit of corporate money really is more valuable than life itself.