Friday, December 12, 2008

"Accepting responsibility"

"Following the verdict, the Acting Met Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson said Mr de Menezes' death had been a "most terrible mistake", which he "deeply regretted".

"He was an innocent man and we must accept full responsibility for his death," he said.

I know very little about this particular case or who was or was not at fault, but I was struck by the emptiness of Mr. Stephenson's concept of responsibility. He is not proposing that the police officers who killed Mr. de Menezes be punished in any way—the coroner had instructed the jury that they were not permitted to return a verdict of unlawful killing. He is not proposing that he himself or anyone else in any sense responsible be punished in any way or owe recompense to anyone. He is merely "accepting full responsibility" on behalf of his organization for killing an innocent man.

I am reminded of my reaction at the time of the Waco tragedy when Janet Reno, then Attorney General, made a similar statement on her own behalf. If you accept personal responsibility for actions that led to a substantial number of people, including children, being burned to death while under attack by people whose actions you consider yourself responsible for, the very least you can do is to resign. Subsequent suicide may be appropriate but is not mandatory.

But of course what she actually meant, and what he actually meant, was something closer to "all right already, stop bugging me."


William Newman said...

Well, maybe "[the costs fall almost entirely on people unlike you, and] [I bring you omelets, so when] eggs were broken on my authority, stop bugging me." He's probably aiming at the large audience that largely accepts (1) that negative rights are obviously meaningless without positive rights (for individual human beings, not, again obviously, for members of the United Nations), and (2) that the Takings clause of the Bill of Rights is impractical because the government has so many net-overwhelmingly-good things to do that it could never afford to compensate people for the costs, and similar inequalities make it wildly impractical for police to be responsible in any archaic individual-rights way for damage they do, and (3) that absolutely the only thing that stands between us and bloody anarchy is vigorous government policing with a lot of unaccountable discretionary authority. A significant fraction of the target audience is also strongly in favor of imposing costs on others as a way of demonstrating, preserving, or gaining status.

After reading some of your writings, I am pretty sure that the target audience does not include you.:-|

I claim that the bracketed claims are pretty important for the target audience. It's difficult to make sense of the politics of things like the War on Drugs or zoning/planning/condemnation policy without appealing to claims like that. And, when governments lose support for their exercise of arbitrary authority, it seems often to be because people stop believing those claims. Perhaps the bracketed claims loom larger for the target audience than for you because, using very different heuristics than you do, the target audience evaluates their plausibility very differently than you do.

Anonymous said...

I always thought that "accepting responsibility" meant doing something, rather than mere words. Like selling off your worldly goods and giving the proceeds to the victim's family. Or forming a circular firing squad and commencing fire. Or both.

Bob Weber

Anonymous said...
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Jonathan said...

I sympathize with your post, which is well expressed as usual. I have the same "Huh?" reaction when I hear of something like this.

Looking at it from the point of view of the people who say these things, I think their intention is to acknowledge responsibility without culpability.

Suppose I drop a banana skin on the floor and someone later slips on it, hits his head on something hard, and dies. I have some responsibility for the death, but I'm guilty of littering, not murder.

In the case you mention, a man was deliberately shot dead, which is hardly the same as dropping a banana skin; but, from Stephenson's point of view, it was an unfortunate accident (shrug). I suppose he would say that, if policemen are allowed to shoot people, sometimes they'll shoot bad people and sometimes they'll make mistakes and shoot good people. To err is human. If you want the police to go around shooting bad people, you have to accept them shooting good people now and then as a normal hazard of the operation; and not punish them for doing their jobs as best they can.

I'm not expressing my own opinions here (which are close to yours); I'm trying to be devil's advocate.

Arthur B. said...

Speaking of this, I always thought a Judge should be legally responsible for his decisions. Makes you think twice before sending someone to the death row. This is my libertarian viewpoint, but I'd love an economics of law insight.

David Friedman said...

"Speaking of this, I always thought a Judge should be legally responsible for his decisions."

The problem is that the judge doesn't get a corresponding reward when he makes the right decision. Or, to put it a little differently, he doesn't get a punishment if his decision results in the acquittal of someone who is guilty.

I actually raise on example of what I consider judicial negligence on a scale that would clearly be tortious in other contexts in Law's Order, a mistake that probably resulted in a lot of people dying who would otherwise of have lived. The case is Davis v Wyeth Laboratories, Inc; you can find the discussion in the chapter at:

Search for "polio."

Gary McGath said...

This has become entirely routine. "I accept full responsibility" means "Tough, you can't do a damn thing about it."

Arthur B. said...

The judge could get a cut of the reparation payment from the guilty to the victim. It sounds crazy but if there is liability for wrongful judgment, it may balance out.

Anonymous said...

I suppose he would say that, if policemen are allowed to shoot people, sometimes they'll shoot bad people and sometimes they'll make mistakes and shoot good people. To err is human. If you want the police to go around shooting bad people, you have to accept them shooting good people now and then as a normal hazard of the operation; and not punish them for doing their jobs as best they can.

Except I don't think cases like this one and Waco are situations where the people doing the killing are "doing their jobs as best they can".

Jonathan said...

MDavis, whether a policeman made an honest and forgivable mistake, or whether he was incompetent or malevolent; these are matters of opinion and we can all have our own opinions about any particular case.

Naturally, the policeman himself, and his boss, are likely to believe that any mistakes made were honest and forgivable. In my previous comment, I was trying to see the situation from their point of view, to understand what leads them to say the things that they say.

I haven't studied the de Menezes case in any detail. Clearly, an innocent man was killed, but it doesn't necessarily follow that anyone is culpable and deserves punishment; that depends on the circumstances, which can be hard to evaluate.

From the little I know, I'd say that the police in this case were probably incompetent; but were they incompetent enough to deserve punishment; and, if so, what sort of punishment would be appropriate? If I were asked to decide, I don't think I'd find it easy.

Jonathan said...

As an anecdotal example: years ago I knew someone who killed another man in a road accident. He was driving along a city street at a normal speed, when the other man stepped out from behind a lorry without looking.

In this case, you could say that the driver of the car was responsible for the death of an innocent man; but he wasn't punished in any way because he wasn't judged to be culpable.

Of course this depends on the law in force. If motor cars were rare, it might be judged that possession and use of such a machine endangers the public, and that the driver should always be punished if his car hits anyone, whatever the circumstances.

Anonymous said...

Jonathon writes: In my previous comment, I was trying to see the situation from their point of view, to understand what leads them to say the things that they say.

I know, that's why I quoted you starting from "I suppose he would say...". My response was to the hypothetical him rather than to you.

Anyway, I don't buy the idea that these kinds of killings are situations where well-intentioned people are making honest mistakes, which is how I interpreted the text.

Jonathan said...

Looking again at the de Menezes case, I see that he was being followed by unarmed policemen on the basis of vague suspicion and misidentification. As he was heading for the Underground train system (which had already been the subject of bomb attacks), they called in armed policemen who presumably knew even less about the case than they did. De Menezes was then shot by the armed policemen.

I can think of several reasons why they might have shot him.

1. They had a personal grudge against him and wanted him dead for some improper reason.

2. They were afflicted with blood lust and just wanted to kill someone.

3. They wrongly believed he was a suicide bomber who might detonate himself at any moment.

All are possible, but #3 seems the most plausible to me. Am I being naïve and insufficiently paranoid?

More subtly, I point out that British policemen are normally unarmed. When you call in armed policemen, it means there's a dangerous target who may need to be shot. The armed policeman may regard himself as a kind of soldier whose duty is to kill the enemy. In this case, the armed policemen seem to have uncritically accepted the identification of the target as given to them, and proceeded to shoot him because they thought they'd been called in for that purpose.

I think there were several factors at work here: poor identification of the suspect by the unarmed policemen, poor communication between two different branches of the police; and, in general, defects in police training.

It still seems to me like incompetence rather than malevolence. Unless any of the policemen knew de Menezes personally and had something against him.

It's surely arguable that some senior policeman should have resigned after this affair.

John Fast said...

Obviously an appropriate question from a member of the press would be something like "What do you mean by 'accept responsibility'? What will do differently because of it, compared to what you would do if you didn't accept responsibility?"

Jonathan said...

John Fast: nicely put! Concise, too.

Jonathan said...

There's a general and very fundamental problem with responding to terrorism. If the first priority of the police is not to harm suspects who turn out to be innocent, then terrorists will sometimes succeed (killing many innocent people) who could have been stopped.

However, if the first priority is to stop terrorists, then innocent people will sometimes be mistakenly killed by police.

I don't see any way out of this. Given a sustained attack by competent terrorists, innocent people are likely to get killed one way or the other.

However, whoever's in charge of the police should at least say what the priority is and make it clear to everyone.

Alex Perrone said...

Regarding the polio reference, you write in the Ch. 14 "About one person in a million who was inoculated with the Sabin live virus vaccine got polio as a result."

If the period over which this study was done (i.e. how long they carried out the test of whether someone acquired polio) was the same as that in the estimate made by the Surgeon General's report, then the judge's claim is correct. I say this because I would guess that the study did not last for the rest of the lives' of all participants in the study.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the polio comparison, there is another problem. If almost everyone is being inoculated, the risk of contracting polio from natural causes is lower because of widespread use of the vaccine.

This raises the issue of whether Wyeth should be liable for not doing enough to inform people of the benefits of being a free rider.

Also, this raises the issue of what role, if any, the government should play in encouraging vaccines that provide a positive externality for people who don't take the vaccine.