In his classic play (and movie) A Few Good Men, writer Aaron Sorkin deftly gives his villain, Col. Nathan "You Can’t Handle the Truth" Jessep, the opportunity to elicit some sympathy from the audience. Time and time again, Jessep asserts that he—and the Marine Corps at large—are nobly in "the business of saving lives." Without compunction, the character behaves cruelly and callously because he believes it is the best way to protect 300 million Americans from danger. "My existence," he explains in one of the great soliloquies of contemporary drama, "while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives." Despise his methods as much as you want, it’s not that radical to suggest that his motives—at least as he sees them—are ultimately for the good of the nation.
Which brings us to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. What, exactly, is BP in the business of? Because if the point is to serve Americans—in BP’s case by supplying them with oil—then it would seem that forgoing safety measures and risking the destruction of a rig, the deaths of employees, and the loss of all that black gold, would be counterproductive to that mission. Even if the company believes that its existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to the rest of us, does America good, one would still expect it not to behave as if it doesn’t give a rip about the nation’s environment or about its human, plant, and animal life. If BP’s prevailing philosophy were actually what the company claims it to be—"We try to work in ways that will benefit the communities and habitats where we do business—and earn the world’s respect"—then it might be expected not to destroy the nation’s most precious biome and the health and livelihoods of Gulf Coast fishermen.
New York Times columnist Bob Herbert got it right last week when he lambasted the "scandalous, rapacious greed of the oil industry," essentially pointing out that BP is actually in the business of making money, not that of serving Americans by supplying them with hard-to-get oil. At TruthDig, Chris Hedges was even less charitable, writing that corporations like BP, "and those who run them, consume, pollute, oppress and kill." Hedges goes on to argue that big business "serve[s] Thanatos, the forces of death, the dark instinct Sigmund Freud identified within human beings that propels us to annihilate all living things, including ourselves."
Corporations, it should be remembered, are chartered by government to serve the state and its citizens and are given considerable legal latitude to do so; when they instead begin to wreck the state and to kill its citizens, then it may be time to rethink those charters.