Public Comment

Who Is The Murderer?

Harry Brill
Thursday December 01, 2016 - 09:55:00 PM

Perhaps you are familiar with the movie "Murder on the Orient Express", which is based on an Agatha Christie novel. The task for the detective, Hercule Poirot, was to determine who committed the murder. The problem we learn is that asking the wrong question yields the wrong answer. Like the title of my article, "Who is the Murderer" is the wrong question. The right question should be pluralized --Who ARE The Murderers. It took a while for Poirot to realize that not one but twelve individuals were involved in what was a revenge murder. When Poirot finally solved the mystery, he made the difficult decision not to turn them in because he concluded that the murderers were justified.

This remarkable and brilliant murder mystery is a metaphor for learning something about our own demise The lives of most of us will be cut short because we are victimized by many murderers. They include a substantial number of the unregulated corporations who in one way or another pollute our environment, poison our food and water supply, and produce many products that jeopardize our health. Indeed, each of us is subject to abuse by many corporate assassins who wield their many lethal weapons.

There is an important difference between Poirot's murderers and the corporate prompted assassinations. The type of murders committed in the Orient Express involve a tangible weapon, which is usually a gun but also a knife. And the impact is generally immediate. Last year there were almost 16,000 such homicides. It is these kinds of murders that we generally learn about from the media. Those who are apprehended typically receive heavy sentences particularly if they are racial minorities.

Corporate crime, by contrast, is far more subtle. The "weapons" that assault corporate victims are not tangible or even visible, and if the victims die as a result, it is not the same day or week but years later. So it is much more difficult to connect in people's minds the cause and effect. Also, except for unusual circumstances, corporate crimes are rarely reported in the media. So we can understand why many Americans are more oriented toward supporting capital punishment than punishing capital. 

Yet the big corporations are responsible for hundreds of thousands of annual fatalities. According to an MIT study, air pollution kills about 200,000 people annually and reduces their life expectancy by 10 years. In the interest of making profits, the oil giants have successfully resisted phasing out fossil fuel. Industrial as a well as vehicle generated pollution appreciably assault our health. 

Among the other legal weapons of major corporations is food poisoning, which injures and even kills consumers. More than 200 known diseases are transmitted through food that was irresponsibly processed in corporate factories. In addition, carcinogenic pesticides in our foods are very common. And additionally, we are exposed to many chemicals and products that are dangerous to our health.  

Radiation is also a problem. Take for example the dangerous emissions from cell tower antennas. According to the research, those who live nearby these towers are at a greater risk of contracting cancer. Incredibly, the Federal Communications Commission does not permit local jurisdictions to ban cell towers because of possible health issues! The legal grounds for challenging cell towers is extremely limited and very tricky in ways that favor the corporations. So for example, despite the strong ad legitimate objections of upper middle class homeowners in the affluent hills of North Berkeley, they were still unable to stop AT&T from recently building a cell tower in their neighborhood. 

Occasionally, corporations are successfully sued for violating safety and health laws. 

But it is the corporations and not their executives that are fined. Generally speaking, these fines are not large enough to deter these companies from continuing to do business as usual. The business community has little interest, then, in improving its moral conduct. In other words, the lackadaisicalness of government encourages corporations to continue to commit health and safety violations. 

Let's take a brief view of Volkswagen's outrageous criminal conduct. It installed software in its automobiles --- 500,000 autos in the United States --for the purpose of displaying when examined a much lower level of pollution than it actually emits. Although the company's hype claimed its cars were environmentally friendly, they emitted 40 times more times of the dangerous gas, Nitrogen Oxide, than tests revealed. In the United States Nitrogen Oxide kills an estimated 50,000 people annually.  

The company's deception stretched from 2009 to 2015. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally issued in 2015 a notice of violation of the Clean Air Act but only after it was discovered and made public by scientists in their small laboratory at the University of West Virginia. Clearly, the EPA has failed to do its job of carefully verifying the safety claims made by the automobile industry. Hmm!-- what other health hazards has the EPA been ignoring? Volkswagen has been fined, but nobody at Volkswagen has been tried and sentenced to jail despite the evidence that they knowingly engaged in a crime that kills people. 

Corporations are able to commit crimes with impunity because of their cozy relationship with government. How ironic that although taxpayer money supports the EPA, the agency mainly protects business from properly serving the taxpaying public. Even though Volkswagen is a foreign based company, that was still not enough to arouse the indignation of the regulatory agency. 

Hercule Poirot made a major decision to protect 12 murderers from arrest and prosecution. Like these 12 souls, many of us are furious with the misconduct of our major corporations. But on the other hand, we do not condone taking the law into our own hands even if Poirot would be forgiving. Instead, we need to build a movement which has the credibility to elect candidates to office who will enforce the laws no matter how prominent the violators are. We understand Poirot's empathy. But for us, Poirot's decision is not the route to take.