Monday, October 12, 2009

Bhopal and the Absence of Remorse

The massive toxic chemical leak at the Union Carbide pesticide factory in Bhopal, India, on December 3, 1984, killed several times the number of people as the terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda did in the United States on September 11, 2001.

At least 2,000 people died in Bhopal on the night of the leak, according to the Indian government. Aid organizations estimated that 5,000 people died in the fist 72 hours, and another 15,000 in the next few weeks. Tens of thousands more may have died over the years from lung cancer, kidney failure, liver disease, and other gas-related illnesses, with countless victims still chronically ill.

When the Bhopal leak occurred, I was taking exams for the fall semester in my second year of law school. Though I subscribed to the Chicago Tribune and watched the news on McNeil-Lehrer (not yet called The Newshour), the tragedy seemed so far away. The main thing I remember about it, beyond the raw number of 10,000 dead (a gross underestimate, it now seems), was that numerous American personal injury lawyers headed to Indian in the aftermath of accident, seeking to sign up clients.

I hadn’t thought about the case in years, until I read a brief item last summer about the warrant issued by a magistrate in Bhopal for the arrest of Warren Anderson, the former CEO of Union Carbide. Anderson was briefly detained in India at the time of the lethal leak, but was quickly released. The magistrate reissued the arrest warrant and ordered the Indian government to initiate extradition proceedings against Mr. Anderson.

In late July of 2009, reporters seeking comment about the arrest warrant and possible extradition showed up at Anderson’s home in the Hamptons. His wife, Lilian, offered a rather incoherent defense of her husband:

● Warren Anderson is 89 and doesn’t remember so well, she said − but she still tried to garner sympathy for him by saying he has been haunted by the incident for nearly 25 years.
● CEOs were not paid all that much back in her husband’s day, she asserted − as a silver Cadillac sat parked in their driveway in the prosperous Hamptons.

I’m not necessarily suggesting that an 89-year-old man who may be in poor health should be sent halfway around the world for trial. But Warren and Lilian Anderson would do well to not merely defend themselves, but to come to terms, at least in their own hearts, with the devastating cascade of death and disease unleashed by the negligence of the company Warren headed.

In India, that pain is not some historical footnote; it is a real and present ongoing grievance that continues to afflict tens of thousands of people in body and soul. Although Union Carbide paid $470 million in compensation to the Indian government in 1989, victims groups claim that the money was never properly distributed.

A crowd gathered outside the court in Bhopal and cheered the news of Mr. Anderson’s arrest warrant. A few of these people beat a hooded effigy of him with a stick. A nasty image, to be sure. Yet the Andersons, if they are of sound mind, should not look away. Not wanting to be a scapegoat is understandable, but has Warren Anderson ever really acknowledged the immense scale of the suffering in Bhopal and his role in it?
Generationally, the Andersons are probably too old to be attuned to Bob Dylan’s music. But they might benefit from considering the lyrics to his song What Good Am I?

"What good am I if I know and don't do.
If I see and don't say, if I look right through you.
If I turn a deaf ear to the thundering sky,
What good am I?"

Nearly 25 years after the Bhopal sky filled with toxic fumes, one suspects that the head of the corporation that caused the carnage is still looking right through the victims. If he really is haunted, why did he make no act of expiation?

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