A few years earlier, Joe Barristar had visited the town of Salem, Massachusetts and sat in the communal house where the witch trials took place. Although a relatively small building by modern standards, it was an imposing and foreboding centerpiece of the town. As Joe listened to the story of the trial, he wondered how people could get so far off track. It was obvious that fear had been at play but what other human emotions would drive an otherwise moral and disciplined people into a frenzy of condemnation and even murder.
These memories of Salem flooded into Joe’s consciousness as he watched a Congressional hearing on the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The hearing featured a great deal of hostility. Congressman after Congressman threatened or leveled accusations at a man seated at the witness table.
Only one Congressman had the audacity to suggest that due process under the law was being ignored and that a shakedown by the government was in progress. He might have added that mob rule was in play — but he did not.
The lone Congressman’s issue was the 5th amendment to the Bill of Rights. The founders intended it to protect an individual’s personal property and effects against government tyranny. This amendment reads in part:
No person shall — be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
From a study of the Constitution and many of the papers of America’s founders, Joe knew that the due process requirements within the Constitution preserved America’s rule of law. When due process considerations were legally enforced there was at least some accountability to the citizenry. On the other hand, when due process was sacrificed on the altar of political correctness, much of importance was certain to be lost or deliberately hidden from view.
Unfortunately, by the time of the hearing, the Constitution had been shredded by progressive politicians and ideologues. These individuals had turned this providentially inspired framework for American government into a “living” document that could be interpreted to suit the whims of whomever was in power. Most importantly, the “living” document practitioners had piled restriction upon restriction on the Bill of Rights. Thus individual liberty was undermined one decision, one regulation and one elected official at a time.
Joe’s attention was brought sharply back into focus. Off to the side of the hearing room a woman started screaming. Joe imagined that something like this had happened in Salem but at that time the devil was a spiritual rather than oily physical presence. The woman was dressed in grayish clothes and a black substance was prominent on her hands and face. She was reportedly a liberal activist and a political plant by some Congressman who was a known advocate for global warming and environmental politics. She resisted arrest but was eventually subdued and removed from the hearing. It was good theater while it lasted.
The hearing’s lone witness was a man ironically named “Red” Grange. The witness table, which could easily accommodate 3, 4 or even 5 witnesses, was surrounded by dozens of photographers each snapping a picture at every word or gesture. Television cameras were strategically placed throughout the room to capture the give and take during the exchanges between the numerous politicians and Mr. Grange. The news media hoped to capture an insensitive expression that could be instantaneously broadcast worldwide. Joe wondered how anyone could stand the stress yet alone think up an answer.
“Red” was the CEO of Transylvanian Oil. English by birth, Russian by marriage, and a petroleum engineer with an MBA by education, he had moved up quickly through the ranks to the top executive position in the company. He had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and thus was the “red meat” thrown into a lion’s den filled with power hungry politicians and frustrated Americans.
Grange was dressed in a well tailored business suit, although many in attendance at the hearing thought sackcloth and chains were more appropriate. “Red” was lucky, however, as one Congressman of Japanese descent had suggested that he commit ritual suicide.
Joe kept looking around for a stake at which Grange could be burned, and chuckled at the thought that it was probably outside on the Capitol grounds where he imagined some Congressional aides were assembling kindling, logs and charcoal lighter fluid. Joe figured it was possible that some ignorant aide would use gasoline to start the fire not knowing it was an explosive if mishandled.
It is important to note that Grange had previously admitted Transylvanian Oil’s monumental mistake and promised to pay all of the costs associated with the mistake. The Company had taken direct action to pay for what were expected to be enormous costs by setting aside its annual dividend and creating a huge disaster reserve. Of course, none of that mattered. The hounds from hell were out for blood, and it was blood they must be served regardless of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Law, and even common sense.
Joe continued to watch the hearing until its very end. He wondered if any Congressman would have the guts to expose the entire picture of graft, special deals, and hidden environmental politics. Not surprisingly, the role of the government in the Gulf disaster was hidden from public view.
It would have been refreshing to have someone like Grange say that the insanity of forcing oil companies to drill in the middle of nowhere ought to be addressed. However, the threats of dire government action that would have destroyed Transylvanian Oil, and the prospects of criminal charges associated with the spill, prevented such honesty.
Joe did not excuse Transylvanian Oil for its mistake. He was probably more upset than the average citizen because what happened represented an avoidable professional failure. In addition, Joe loved the Gulf and had lived in Florida during his formative years. The idea of the Gulf being turned into a toxic wasteland was sickening, and Joe’s body reacted with unease and queasiness. He reflexively pounded his fist on his thigh.
Joe’s perspective on the matter was “if the science, technology and engineering tools of oil drilling were not there, then the risk was too high. And, by the way, the oil companies better not drill in much deeper water in the Atlantic Ocean until they had a plan to handle mistakes where no living man or woman could go and where it took months or potentially years to correct a mistake”.
The Salem witch trial behavior by America’s political leaders frightened Joe. In Salem, some of the women were judged guilty of being witches well before their trial began. The same thing was happening in the Congressional hearings.
The implication was that America’s political leaders were condemning more than Red Grange and Transylvanian Oil. Because of the righteous fear or anger or frustration of the American people, they were condemning the free enterprise system that had done so much to promote America’s prominence in the world.
Joe revered the rule of law and the Constitution that protected it. If there was anything he feared it was the abuse of either for the convenience of the politicians. He knew that individual liberty could easily be threatened as a result.
The founders had warned about the tendencies of politicians over 200 years earlier. Were the American people listening?