Whistle-blowing remains a concern

Tuesday, November 9, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:39 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

There is a way of knowing when something of value goes out of one’s life. I knew. The moment I realized that 30 years ago, I would never have debated with myself over the issue of whistle-blowing. In those good/bad days, if a person had evidence that people were skirting the law or committing a crime or endangering lives, he/she reported them to the proper authorities.

But when I picked up the newspaper the other day and read the story about Bunnatine Greenhouse, a contracting officer for the Army Corps of Engineers who is attempting to advise her bosses about concerns she had over an extended troop support contract with Halliburton, I felt a griping sensation in the muscles in my stomach. She has publicly alleged that favoritism had been shown toward Halliburton, which was formerly headed by Vice President Dick Cheney. This was an action which I once would have applauded but now only fills me with a sense of dread. Situations like this always take me back to the Karen Silkwood case in 1974.

Many people, if they ever knew about Karen Silkwood, may have already forgotten her. She was a metallographic laboratory technician at the Cimarron River plutonium plant of Kerr-McGee Nuclear Corporation. She became an active member of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union. She was selected as the only woman on the union’s bargaining committee and, during studying health and safety issues in that capacity, she found evidence of spills, leaks and missing plutonium.

Issues arose concerning employee safety and environmental contamination at the plant. Silkwood testified before the Atomic Energy Commission that she had suffered radiation exposure in a series of unexplained accidents. She was on her way to meet with that agency and a New York Times reporter in 1974 when she was killed in an automobile accident. An autopsy of Silkwood’s body showed that it had been contaminated by plutonium but no charges of foul play were ever proved. Controversy about the company’s accountability resulted in the plant being closed. Every time I hear a case of national whistle-blowing, I remember Karen Silkwood and the tragedy that ended her life.

I don’t know that people are any more or less immoral or unprincipled today than they ever were, but I do know that society tends to be more willing to overlook questionable behavior than it once was. Maybe it’s because I spend so much time poring over old newspapers that I am so aware of this.

Just last week, I was marveling over a case from a newspaper that was 100 years old. An older man had fallen “head over heels” in love with a teenage woman and had provided her with a luxurious apartment and many fabulous gifts. The man’s friends had prevailed upon him to give up the young woman, and he had agreed and then reneged. As the situation became more public, embarrassment evidently overtook the man’s son and the young man committed suicide. Guilt over his death drove the teenage woman to take her own life and, on the day of her burial, the older man also killed himself. Rightly or wrongly, these people felt that they could not endure the prospect of public scorn and social isolation and had therefore ended their lives.

I do believe that bad behavior seems to have so few consequences these days that many see no reason not to risk it to get whatever they want. Martha Stewart’s incarceration is made to appear, by the media, as just another episode of reality TV. A multimillion dollar book deal will make her lies to the government seem like just another smart business move. And no, I’m not going to ask what the children are supposed to think. Those that are still around can face that issue when the future generations take over the country. That’s when parents and the general public will get to see the lessons they taught overpower them.

In any case, I took a straw poll among my neighbors and asked how many would blow the whistle on their employer. To the person, they agreed that, only in a matter of life and death, where they felt their own soul would be in jeopardy. And for a lot of folks this has become that kind of world.

We have all seen many examples lately of people who claimed they wanted to set the record straight in one area or another. Some of them, of course, are more credible than others. Credible or not, some have seen their name and reputation shredded into bits and pieces. And it’s to our credit that the overwhelming majority of those who hold positions of public trust seem to be honest and law-abiding. Whether this will be true 10 years from now is hard to say.

Ironically, it appears that doing “the right thing” often has more unfavorable consequences than doing the wrong thing. We hear all the time that “no good deed goes unpunished.” Such is the pity of it. But when the acquisition of money becomes the primary motive for behavior, it will ultimately bring out the worst in all of us.

Whistle-blow? I don’t know. What do you think? And of greater importance, what would you advise your daughter or son to do?

If you have to think about it longer than a minute, that’s your way of knowing that something of value has also gone out of your life.

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