14 March 2019
The Blame Game
The need to find fault.
By Lynda Goetz
As Theresa May’s unsatisfactory deal was resoundingly defeated in Parliament for the second time on Tuesday night, she herself looked distant and resigned. Elsewhere, however, the blame game had already started. ‘If it weren’t for those bloody Brexiteers sabotaging all her efforts it could have been fine’. ‘If only she hadn’t tried so hard to mollify the hardline Brexiteers’. ‘The difficulty lies with those Remainers who won’t accept the public vote’ etc etc. The fact is, of course, as everyone really knows, that there is no single reason why we have ended up in this total shambles, just a series of mistakes of judgement by a number of people and groups along the way.
Mistakes of judgement are, it seems, not easily forgiven. As life gets increasingly complicated and people are called upon to engage in ever more complex tasks (the training for which can take many years), the public, composed of course of individuals, seems progressively less tolerant of any mistakes, whether they be made by politicians, doctors, lawyers, soldiers or pilots.
Take the case of pilot Andrew Hill, who last week was found ‘not guilty’ of the manslaughter of 11 men killed when his plane crashed at the Shoreham air show on August 22 2015 after a failed loop the loop. The experienced pilot was miraculously thrown free of the burning wreckage and despite multiple injuries at the time is now in good health; fit enough to be put on trial for ‘gross negligence manslaughter’ (GNM) after police decided there was a case to answer. GNM is a criminal offence and is used in cases where the accused owes a ‘duty of care’ to those who died and that duty was breached. Prosecutors must also show that that breach caused (or significantly contributed to) the death and that the defendant’s conduct was so bad as to constitute gross negligence. This was the same charge made against paediatrician Dr BawaGarba (about whom I wrote last July in The Shaw Sheet) and of which she was convicted, in spite of a number of mitigating circumstances. She successfully appealed against being struck off the medical register by the GMC, but the mother of the boy who died felt it would be a ‘mockery of justice’ were she to be allowed to return to work.
Likewise in this case, we have the relatives of the men who were killed in the Shoreham air crash, sobbing, shaking their heads and expressing ‘surprise’ at the verdict. The parents of Mathew Grimstone said they were ‘devastated’ by the verdict. Leslye Polito, the mother of the youngest victim, 24 year-old Daniele Polito, went as far as to say she was “extremely disappointed, very upset and decidedly let down by the justice system… he made errors of judgement and is allowed to walk free.” Am I alone in finding such sentiments shocking?
Clearly I cannot put myself in their shoes. I have not lost any member of my family as a result of the mistakes or misjudgements of others. I am far from convinced, however, that criminalising those who have made those errors of judgement would in any way help deal with the loss. It is not going to bring back the dead. There was certainly no malicious intent. Can they not imagine the torment a person is likely to suffer for the rest of their life having made mistakes resulting in the deaths of one, let alone eleven people? How does making them criminally culpable help? The tragic loss of lives cut short must be devastating. The guilt felt by the defendants in such cases must be unbearable; the stuff of nightmares. The bar is rightly set high in such cases to avoid imprisoning people for legitimate accidents.
The decision to be made on 14th March as to whether or not four ‘paras’, now in their 60s and 70s, are to be put on trial for their part in the Bloody Sunday massacre 47 years ago is another situation where families appear to be baying for the ‘justice they deserve’. Much has been written on this over the nearly half century since it happened in 1972. Since then IRA murderers have been given ‘get-out-of-jail free’ cards, but the former ‘squaddies’ have had to endure enquiry after enquiry about something which happened when they were young men. As Boris Johnson says, this, of itself, does not exonerate them. A crime is still a crime decades after it has happened (as thank goodness the Catholic Church has finally accepted) and if information is brought forward which sheds new light on events, then it may be only right that prosecution occurs. The Irish Times reported on the angry response that Boris Johnson’s views expressed in The Telegraph on 3rd March had aroused in the Republic. This is clearly an emotive subject and one where any opinion given or comment made is likely to cause anger on one side or another. However, is what people are really seeking justice, or is it revenge?
The subject of forgiveness is one which has engaged religions and philosophers since time immemorial. To forgive however, there needs in the first place to be an offence and this is where there seems to be a fundamental need in many people to blame. Only when they have attributed blame can they get ‘justice’. In some circumstances, however, blame is hard to lay at the door of any one person or to attribute to the deliberate actions or criminal negligence of a specific individual. Trying to seek out that individual and punish them (particularly where death has occurred) may feel like the right thing to do to the bereaved family or families, but on so many occasions it is very far from ‘justice’.
Where is the justice in dragging a doctor through the courts (and then depriving them of their livelihood and the public of a good doctor) for what, in fact, amounts to systemic failures? Is it really justice to prosecute a pilot ‘to find answers for the families and friends of those who died’? Why, when a jury finds him ‘not guilty’ do those families feel the need to claim that they feel they have been ‘denied justice’? Is the word they are really looking for ‘retribution’? The IRA operatives set out to kill and maim. The soldiers who killed innocent people on Bloody Sunday did not set out to do anything of the sort. They were young men under orders. We do not really know what happened on that day. Of course discipline in the military is vital and soldiers responsible for murder should expect to face the consequences, but justice is not served by responding to the righteous anger of families and putting old men on trial in order to find someone to blame. Sometimes, there is no one individual on whom to pin the anger, the blame and the punishment, even where there was only one person who caused the accident, the death and the tragedy.