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Not the Time for Blame: Shut Up and Fix the Oil Leak

During the first season of “The Unit” Dennis Haysbert’s character Sergeant Major Jonas Blane makes a memorable speech pointing out how things “inevitably, irrevocably fall apart.” A much more eloquent rendition of “shit happens.” This is a universal truth I think we all accept. The plan you spent so much time on didn’t work right. You overlooked a detail somewhere. The wrong person was hired. Someone had a lapse in judgment. Shit happens.

This thought struck me as I started reading about the BP oil leak. Personally, I find accidents very understandable. I’m very diligent in my work and research, but every so often I make a mistake. Just proves that it does happen to the best of us. Most of the folks I work and interact with are also quite careful, but none are perfect. If anyone is reading this and has never made a mistake, please send me an email with a few tips.

What I don’t understand is the blame game and the cover up. Is now really the time to decide who is at fault for the explosion? The leak isn’t contained, but Rep. Henry Waxman of California is already on a witch hunt to find out who screwed up. The leak spews off 210,000 gallons of crude oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico, currently totaling around 4 million gallons since April 20, which is currently floating in a patch roughly 3,650 square miles in size, and White House energy adviser Carol Browner is talking to reporters about the Obama Administration’s desire for BP to pay for all clean up costs.

Pay for all clean up costs? You mean the cost to clean up the giant mess that keeps getting bigger while you sit around and quibble about who caused it and who is going to pay to clean it up?

I’m more disgusted by the response to this disaster we see from BP and from the White House than I am by the spill itself. Accidents are going to happen. Lapses in judgment are going to happen. People are going to screw up. I think most rational adults understand this reality.

Go fix it. We’ll worry about who is going to foot the bill and who is going to take the blame later.

Two events come to mind as contrasting examples of reactions to disaster. The 9/11 World Trade Center attacks and Hurricane Katrina. In the days after 9/11, folks stood in line to give blood. A thousand legitimate charities sprung up overnight to send aid. Firefighters, EMTs, doctors and other first responders from around the country headed to New York City. I remember watching a news report about firefighters from my home city of St. Louis, MO packing up a truck and driving it up to help. I looked it up, that’s a trip of nearly 1000 miles that those guys made without a second thought or promise of financial help. On September 12, 2001 no one was asking which of our leaders were to blame for this tragedy, we were too focused on helping out.

Contrast that to the response to Hurricane Katrina. Ask yourself what comes to mind when you think about Katrina, and I’ll bet your thoughts are similar to mine: you remember the national blame game. New Orleans Mayor Nagin blamed the federal authorities. New Orleans emergency operations chief Terry Ebbert blamed FEMA. I’m not sure who FEMA Director Michael D. Brown blamed, but no one was listening to him anyway. No one was talking about the $10.5 billion President Bush sent, or the National Guard troops arriving with relief packages and running search and rescue operations.

Why is New Orleans still a mess? Why were we so anxious to forget about it? I submit it was because we were sick to death of this blame game. We didn’t want to hear anything more about Katrina because all that was being said was “it’s not my fault, it’s his fault!” We are generally a people with little patience for whiners.

So, here is my message to executives, politicians and other figures in power: we are more likely to understand and forgive if you just admit you screwed up. You had an affair? Fine. Not the best choice, but we know you’re a human being with weaknesses and failures just like everyone else. You underestimated what was needed to respond to a disaster? Hey, we all know that projects always cost more than you think they will. One of your people fudged some safety data? Who hasn’t had a disappointing employee? Remember, President Clinton wasn’t impeached for having an affair; he was impeached for lying about it. No one would remember his indiscretion if “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” wasn’t etched into our national memory.

The American people will rally around an effort to clean up a mess. We will forgive a screw up. What we will not tolerate is a fight to blame someone else, or a dash to stick someone else with the bill. BP, President Obama, Congress, and anyone else involved, please shut up and fix it.


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