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No, Boeing Didn't Murder a Whistleblower

📎And I'm Still in the Murda Bizness...

Content Note: suicide

Full Disclosure: a member of my immediate family worked at Boeing for over a decade and has not been consulted on this in any way. I have no inside knowledge of the individual or company in question.

About a week ago there was a BBC News article making the rounds about a 62-year-old named John Barnett who was found dead in his car of an apparent self-inflicted wound. Barnett was a former employee of Boeing who had filed a whistleblower complaint in 2019 over lax safety standards. At the time of his death he'd given one deposition on the matter and was scheduled for another. The internet promptly jumped down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole and assumed that Boeing must have had the man murdered. And my hackles got raised.

This is me going on the record that I find the idea ridiculous, for reasons I'm going to detail below. I was very irritated with friends and coworkers for hopping on this stupid bandwagon. Of course, this stayed in the meme-o-sphere for like two days, so by bringing it up again I'm probably just making things worse. But really, this is conspiratorial thought along the same lines as claiming that Jeffrey Epstein was murdered in prison by anyone, let alone Hilary Clinton (!?)--it's not completely implausible, just highly unlikely, and there's nothing real to tie it to your villain du jour. The crux of it is a variation on the Appeal to Consequences fallacy: since Boeing benefited from Barnett's death (presumably, more on that below), they must have been behind it. This is logically incoherent. I don't buy it and you shouldn't either, so let's discuss that, shall we?

To start, we have to put a little bit of the blame on the BBC. The fourth paragraph that obliquely mentions the cause of death puts the words "self-inflicted" in quotation marks. It's very easy to read those as scare-quotes, and in fact I did read it that way at first. I considered this to be the height of bad journalism. But on looking at it again, I think it is intended to be read as a direct quotation, although it is unclear who or what is being quoted. Regardless, I'm surprised someone in the pipeline from writing to editorial didn't scan that paragraph and say "maybe we can make this less confusing."

But even so--even when I read those as scare-quotes--I still find the idea of Boeing having a man murdered to be highly far-fetched from a practical standpoint alone. I mean, how would that even work? Someone takes $50,000 out of the Training and Compliance budget to hand off to a hired gunman in a parking garage? Or I suppose it'd be $50,000 worth of BitCoin these days. Or maybe more--I don't know the going rate for murders. Do they keep it in house? Perhaps Boeing has a bag-man, whose official job title is "Head of Sanitation." Or, better yet, maybe they have a permanent wet-work team!

You see how ridiculous this is, right? Right? These things leave paper trails. It's easy enough for someone in a movie to say "let's keep this off the books" but that's not how corporate accounting works in real life, certainly not in a corporation as old and large as Boeing. You have to book those expenditures somewhere. You have to call it something. An auditor is going to want an explanation for it. Also, humans are notoriously bad at keeping secrets. How does something that goes through official corporate channels get kept under wraps. How would you hide that from the board? Or, rather, does it require the entire C-suite to vote unanimously on ending a life? Has anyone thought about this beyond "evil corporation do bad thing"?

Barnett's death doesn't even benefit Boeing--not really. He wasn't a lynchpin for the case against them. There were multiple whistleblowers at the time and Barnett has already given a lot of testimony. And now there's no way to try and catch him in a lie on the witness stand. Boeing is in a ton of hot water after one of their doors fell off mid-flight in January--the FAA already has them under investigation for this and other safety concerns. Barnett's further testimony is a drop in the bucket at this point. They're going to be found negligent, it may even be determined that this negligence contributed to people's deaths, and they will have to pay a hefty fine.

Because that is how evil corporations kill people. Not by hiring murderers, but by cutting corners on safety standards. By abstracting away the value of human life through layer after layer of bureaucracy until it's just a line item on a spreadsheet. Because it's a lot easier for the board to approve a cost-saving measure that might cause problems in 10 years than to actively pay money to have someone killed. Who remembers that one scene in Fight Club?

"A new car built by my company leaves somewhere traveling at 60 mph. The rear differential locks up. The car crashes and burns with everyone trapped inside. Now, should we initiate a recall? Take the number of vehicles in the field, A, multiply by the probable rate of failure, B, multiply by the average out-of-court settlement, C. A times B times C equals X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don't do one."

It's a very cynical perspective but it's not that far off. At that kind of scale, being good stewards is expensive, meaning there's a lot of potential cost savings to be found in de-valuing human life. And one of the benefits of elaborate corporate structures is that it separates the actions of people in middle and upper management from the consequences of those actions, which makes this kind of de-valuation much more tolerable to someone who isn't a literal sociopath. We need to cut costs and Safety and Compliance is a major cost center. Can we find some low-hanging fruit to cut there so we can get our bottom line in order? The managers there say there isn't anything they can do, but I bet with the right incentives they could find something. This is the kind of reasoning that results in actual deaths of actual people, but with that kind of distance between actions and consequences... well, it's no wonder that fines and settlements are considered a cost of doing business rather than a punishment for bad behavior.

So yeah, is Boeing evil? No more or less evil than any other company operating at that scale, which is to say, kinda? But they're not going to open themselves up to the potential legal risk associated with 1st degree homicide. That said, this is an argument against the conspiracy, but it doesn't explain why the conspiracy theory exists at all and took such a hold of the internet. Other than scare-quotes and the satisfaction of pointing the finger at a company that's already in the news for all the wrong reasons... why are people so resistant to the idea that Barnett's wound was, in fact, self-inflicted?

Well, it turns out there is a fundamental misunderstanding amongst society at large of how and why suicides happen. It is unfathomable to many of us that people would actually do this, especially someone who is currently testifying against their employer--they're seeking justice, aren't they? They're trying to make things right. Why would anyone with that much tea to spill actually kill himself? If I may paraphrase one coworker, are we supposed to believe that this guy was just going about his business and then out of blue one day was like "ope, guess I better end it all"?

And the answer is yes, that is literally how it happens. Suicide is, if you'll excuse the phrasing, a crime of both passion and opportunity. Someone is in an emotional low place, gets a sudden overwhelming desire to not want to be alive, and if they have the means at hand they act on that impulse. But those impulses are often transient and ephemeral, and held back by moral restraints and mental blocks whose strengths are also transient. That fact is that most people who survive their first suicide attempt never attempt it again, and generally go on to lead happy and fulfilling lives. Furthermore, most people who attempt suicide are unsuccessful (at least globally--the numbers are rather dismal in the U.S. because we have such ready access to firearms, but I think it's still less than half).

There's an idea that if someone is determined enough to want to commit suicide, they will find a way to succeed. Exceptions abound, but this is, by and large, not true. Indeed, the most successful suicide-prevention measures just involve making it inconvenient to do so. This is one of the reasons to have waiting periods for firearm purchases and nets extending below the Golden Gate Bridge, and so forth. The suicide rate in England and Wales plummeted from 1963 to 1975 because Britain started cleaning the carbon monoxide out of the gas that supplied people's ovens. Ending one's life painlessly in a moment of despair went from something you could easily do in your own kitchen to... well... something you couldn't easily do in your own kitchen. As a result, the rate of suicides in England and Wales dropped by nearly half!

Oh, and here are some more numbers that will upset you. The rate of suicide as a cause of death dwarfs the rate of murder as a cause of death. There are typically between 2 and 4 times as many suicides as murders in a given year. So if you ever hear a news story about someone found dead from an apparent self-inflicted wound... the statistical odds are that it actually was self-inflicted. That's just math.

The point is, attempting suicide is incredibly, incredibly common. We don't like to think about that, because if it can happen to anyone, that means it can happen to someone you love. It could even happen to you. And this is how the conspiratorial thought begins. John Barnett was feeling guilty about his role in what happened at Boeing, and he worked there for nearly 30 years. And in being deposed about his experiences, it stands to reason that he would have had to confront what actions he took--or didn't take--that contributed to the problem. He was also undoubtedly under enormous pressure and receiving threats. It's not a stretch of the imagination at all that he could have found himself, in a moment of despair, taking his own life. It is the far more logical explanation for his death. But if we admit that this happened to him, we have to admit that it could happen to any of us.

And this is existentially terrifying, whether we consciously realize it or not.

If I may quote Dan Olson's excellent video essay In Search of a Flat Earth"The end goal of conspiratorial beliefs is to simplify reality by attributing the high-chaos state of the world to a singular active force or group opposed by an equally singular solution." Suicide is largely swept under the rug in popular discourse because we don't want to confront the nuances and complexities of the issue. We don't want to think about how we could reconstruct our society to see human life as a thing of value instead of a source of revenue. We don't want to ask ourselves why so many people are prone to moments of deep--if transient--despair. And we don't want to contemplate the lasting pain that is inflicted on friends and family members left to question what they could have done differently, or what it would do to us if we ever found ourselves in that circumstance.

So we deny. We blame this highly public death on a single bad actor in the form of Boeing. Therefore we have an out. Therefore, if we just don't ever get a job for a company like Boeing, then we are immune to dying in our cars from a "self-inflicted" wound. Therefore, this issue is no longer a societal problem that needs to be solved.

If only that were really the case.



Anonymous said…
When the time comes to drag the wealthy from their homes and remove the parasite, we will remember the bottom feeders and their families who tried to cover for them. The kulak enabler will swing from their broken necks alongside the kulaks they made excuses for. History is a circle. A man using his real name on the internet would do well to remember that.
Anonymous said…
lick the boot more kurt
Anonymous said…
You are incredibly naive my friend. You must have lived a cushy life. Legitimately do you jsbe any actual knowledge of history or the stuff corporations have got up to in the past? I encourage you do go do some research.