Why Obama's Tough Talk About BP Won't Help

Obama’s tough words will appease some critics, but what’s the real impact? Charles Dharapak / AP

“I don’t want to hear ... that they’re nickel and diming fishermen or small businesses here,” declared a stern-looking President Obama this afternoon. By “they” he meant BP, which, he fumed, is spending $50 million on image-burnishing TV ads and might pay out $10.5 billion in dividends, even as it fails to stop the Gulf oil spill, and by “here” he meant Louisiana, where he traveled Friday to demonstrate how furious he is with all of the above. From the no-nonsense tone to the rolled-up sleeves, Obama looked and sounded the part of the engaged chief executive, so the pundits who all but ordered him to the gulf should be satisfied. But his implied threat of punitive action is beginning to have a familiar ring—too familiar. Earlier this week, Attorney General Eric Holder vowed that the government will “prosecute to the fullest extent of the law” any person or entity that did something criminal and allowed the oil spill to occur. Wall Street took the threat seriously: the day of Holder’s announcement, BP lost 15 percent of its market value. It remains significantly below where it stood last week. Still: does anybody really think that the people responsible for the Gulf catastrophe will be punished sufficiently? My colleague Dan Gross has culled some delightful ideas from his readers, but despite the president’s best intentions, is there any fleeting chance this will end in a way that’s remotely fair?

I don’t mean to belittle the administration’s crimefighting abilities. It’s just that anything remotely approaching justice in the gulf would be a remarkable break from the norm. Time and again lately, authorities vow to punish some act of wrongdoing. They bluster that miscreants will get what they deserve. Then the hedging or the fleeing or the deal-cutting begins, and the idea of justice itself ends up ringing hollow. Bad people have ducked responsibility for their bad deeds since cavemen were boosting each others’ clubs. But it’s hard to read the news every day without feeling this is the golden age of Getting Away With It.

Consider the honor roll of dodged responsibility. The priest abuse scandals. The CEOs profiting from bailout money. Osama bin Laden killed 3,000 Americans and is still at large. So is Ayman al-Zawahiri. So is Mullah Omar. They have lived to taunt and kill another day. It outrages our moral sense to see wrongdoers evade punishment, but in some ways it’s even worse when the justice that gets served is really no justice at all. Bernie Madoff will die a disgraced felon and monster, but this can’t rebuild the thousands of lives he ruined. The same goes for the granny-fleecing financial geniuses at Enron. A nun in a Catholic hospital was recently excommunicated for approving an abortion that saved the mother’s life, even as Bernard Law enjoys what I am appalled to think is a comfortable life in the Holy See. The list goes on.

In eras of great religious devotion, believers could shoulder these iniquities by looking forward to the reckoning promised by Ecclesiastes, that “God shall judge the righteous and the wicked.” But today, our frustrated sense of justice finds its outlet closer to home, in making extravagant demands of the president. Asking Barack Obama to rewrite the laws of physics and halt the oil spill is the expression of a feeling of futility that predates the trouble in the gulf, and is almost certain to outlive it. Even if he uses all the tools at his disposal–firings, fresh regulations, a prosecution or two–he still can’t bridge the justice gap, the difference between the bad things that people do and the remedies that can be applied when they don’t.

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Obama’s sharp words for BP Friday might convince some people to cut him a little slack. The speech he needs to give, but can’t, would range more broadly than telling an oil company how to spend its money. Real life (he might remind people, beginning with the pundits) isn’t much like The West Wing, with its neat depictions of political heroics on a grand scale. Thanks to the gap between actions and consequences, life looks more like The Wire. Every fresh miscarriage of justice ratifies the bleak worldview of David Simon’s show about corruption and drugs in Baltimore. We are all connected, the show says, and we are affected by the moral or immoral actions of people we never meet. Perversely enough, the only people who don’t suffer are the ones most responsible for the suffering in the first place, the ones insulated by money, power, or their connections. Simon’s most haunting character may be the man known only as The Greek, the ultimate source for most of the drugs destroying the city, the one who profits no matter who wins or loses. I’d tell you what happens to him in the end, but I don’t want to spoil the story. And anyway, if you’ve been following the news about the oil spill, the priests, or the financiers, you can probably figure it out on your own.

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