Hello Flint, Michigan. Enjoying your water? We didn’t think so.
First, let’s go through the basics of why the pollution of Flint drinking water matters, and why the same for Camp Lejeune and all of our military base communities matters also. Let’s compare.
In 2011, the state of Michigan took over control in Flint after a budget emergency, and state officials later decided to switch over the city’s water system from Lake Huron to the Flint River temporarily to save money. Since then, lead and other contaminants invaded the Flint water supply and poisoned the population, especially children. People are outraged and making a lot of noise.
Crying foul over toxic water contamination, Flint? Base contamination communities understand completely. We’ve been lied to as well and various folks have been fighting this issue for decades.
Image Source: Al Jazeera America
For all of us impacted by the water contamination and cover-ups at Camp Lejeune and other bases around the country, Flint is sadly nothing new. Military personnel, civilian workers, spouses, children (i.e. everyday American citizens) have been exposed to toxic drinking water at bases across the United States since the 1950s. Yet, thanks to a national election season, recent high-profile political candidate remarks, and heightened media frenzy, this issue has vaulted to the top of the headlines.
Politicians like Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have helped inject Flint into the 24/7 national news cycles in short order. Crisis-chasers like documentary film-maker Michael Moore are salivating at the potential money they can make off of the Flint story and are already circling like vultures.
Image Source: CNN
Look on the bright side, Flint community. You’ve only been exposed to chemicals for about a year right? (*sarcasm heavily implied here)
The local government has called in the National Guard to supply you with bottled water. FEMA is on its way to work up a case for you to apply to get an emergency declaration from President Obama. I wouldn’t be surprised if they come up with an immediate legislative fix and compensation for you this year (much like the 9/11 first responders). It looks like you’re on the fast-track for healthcare and justice you deserve.
Why? Again, just look at all of the media hype and attention you’re getting in less than a month’s time.
Unfortunately, millions of other US citizens exposed to toxic contaminants at bases across this country do not get such rapid response or assistance. All we continue to get is a lot of red tape, endless waiting, debilitating sickness and death.
At Camp Lejeune, many were potentially exposed for more than just a year. Toxic water contamination at Camp Lejeune started in 1953 and carried on until 1987. That’s right, Flint residents, we’re talking 34 years of people exposed to toxic water contamination. Oh, and by the way, since 1987, the government has never taken full accountability for what happened at Lejeune. Here we are, almost 30 years later, and 96% of military claims for any sort of assistance have been denied. Civilians haven’t been offered anything. The courts have stopped any means of legal pursuit by victims (thanks President Obama and your DOJ attorneys). That’s right. No FEMA or National Guard or Presidential emergency declaration for this problem.
Don’t get me wrong. This article is not intended to detract from the Flint situation in any way. We 100% sympathize with and back all of you in Flint, Michigan. We certainly understand the extent of the generational health catastrophe that has befallen your city and its residents and do not make light of your situation. Yet, through some wit and sarcasm, we want to dig down deeper to make a very important point.
The easiest thing for members of base contamination communities to do is to seize upon this issue and say “why them, why not me?” when it comes to awareness, accountability and assistance. As we’ve shown above, it’s easy to draw comparisons to argue and claw out from our dark corner of forgotten injustice for a bit of your spotlight that you’ve been so lucky to receive.
Unfortunately, all of the social media chatter about comparing other communities to Flint misses the much larger point.
We must solve the growing problem of a lack of accountability in our society. It has permeated our culture and our government. No one takes responsibility or accountability for anything anymore. Our politicians give a few ‘mea culpas’ here and there on the news shows and then keep on collecting their paychecks until they’re either voted out, or move on voluntarily. Government officials are rarely fired over blatant negligence, simply because the process is so convoluted that it takes more effort and expense than to just give them a slap on the wrist and keep them on the payroll.
Therefore, in the larger social context, a lack of accountability will inevitably erode trust and the reasonable expectation that fellow citizens will act in a manner to promote the general welfare of others. Our elected officials, government workers and fellow citizens placed in positions of power over our resources should have the first sole responsibility of making the best decisions that protect the general welfare of communities. However, when there is lack of accountability rampant in our public systems, we can no longer trust that our well-being is safeguarded.
Citizens of Flint thought that they could trust their elected officials and public employees to hold themselves to the high standard of making the right ethical decisions to ensure the safety of their community. They entrusted them with this mission and they failed. As a result, the citizens of Flint were poisoned. The same case can be made for Camp Lejeune and other military bases. Members of those communities trusted the elected officials, public servants and military institutions in our public system to hold themselves to the highest ethical standards and protect their general welfare. The trust of these communities was also broken.
What are the results of this growing problem? Lack of accountability breeds the spread of bigger problems. It provides fertile ground for the lazy, inept, ethically malleable, and corrupt people to naturally penetrate all areas of our society. As a result, decisions are made that harm our communities and the impacts spread like a wildfire.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the same perpetrators of the failure are the very same ones that we are forced to entrust to fix the problem. For example, in Michigan, the Flint community was wronged by it’s state and local government officials. They made inept choices to save money, without thought of preserving and protecting the health and welfare of their immediate community. In the aftermath of that fateful decision, the community has no one to turn to for fixing the problem except…you guessed it…the same local and state bureaucrats that fouled things up in the first place. They are the ones right now working to solve the problem that THEY themselves created. With a culture of ineptitude and poor accountability, why should the citizens of Flint trust in that same group now to solve the problem? They certainly cannot and should not.
As a comparison, Camp Lejeune is run by our federal government through one of its military institutions (Marine Corps). Yet, the federal government is also in charge of trying to fix the problem and help those it failed through two other of its own institutions (the VA and DOD). How in the world can victims of contamination in military base communities such as that of Camp Lejeune ever expect the federal government to do the right thing? They refuse accountability, they are responsible for the harm, and they have breached the trust of military members, civilian workers, spouses and children that placed faith in the base officials to protect their general health and welfare. They were held to a higher standard and they, too, failed. Why? Because officials at Lejeune also covered up their knowledge of the contamination for several years before forced to notify the community and clean it up. Has anyone been fired for this? Not that we know of. Has anyone died from this? Plenty.
In both issues, the old saying applies. The “fox is guarding the hen house”.
The lack of accountability permits catastrophes to spread throughout our public system and inflict mass harm. We would like to think that these “fellow citizens” in places of power and decision-making would look out for us because they’re just like us – our fellow neighbors and citizens of the United States. Yet, they fail us because our system promotes a general lack of accountability which breeds the opportunity to make bad decisions without risk to personal responsibility. When there is no admission of guilt, no punishment, no effort to restore trust, then there is no end to the problem and no incentive for others to do the hard work of holding themselves accountable. In other words, the bar lowers and lowers until there is no bar anymore. When we no longer own the consequences of our actions, we are just less motivated to be conscientious. No one cares anymore.
In fact, accountability, or lack thereof, may just be to a point of becoming a “wicked problem”. A wicked problem is defined as:
a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems.
Note that I mentioned earlier about “effort and expense”. Holding public officials, public workers and our government accountable is no easy task. The same can be said for ourselves. The expense of this, however, is becoming too much for us to bear.
How do we begin to solve this problem? Not all citizens who work in our public systems are inept, corrupt or lacking in ethical judgment. Those people need to be celebrated as examples from which others can model their own behavior. We need to re-instill accountability into our public system. In some cases, that may be voting out elected officials. In other cases, it is making our voice heard to our government representatives to force them to exact punishment on those that do not act in the best interests of the population.
We must solve the problem of accountability and restore it to our public institutions. We need to restore trust and create an expectation of higher ethical standards from our public officials and workforce. If we entrust them with our safety, security and health, to expect anything less is now no longer an option. Therefore:
Press hard for accountability, Flint!
Press hard for accountability, Camp Lejeune!
Press hard for accountability, polluted military base communities!
Press hard for accountability, citizens of this country!
Trust and higher standards need to be restored in our local, state and federal government institutions that impact our daily lives. Remember, this is our country, our community and our lives. These institutions are to answer to us and work for us, not the other way around.
Until that day, however, there remains the unfortunate reality that you, the citizens of Flint, face today. When all of the media hype blows over, the election year hoopla dries up, all of the lofty promises of help and assistance fade, and you slide out of the headlines, you too may face stalling tactics, delays, red tape and other obstacles creating years of wait time for the healthcare, accountability, resolution and justice that you absolutely and richly deserve.
Don’t worry. In today’s world of the new normal – no accountability and low ethical standards – it’s completely normal to be ignored when the spotlight fades and the votes are counted. When was the last time you heard anything on the network nightly newscasts about people being contaminated at military bases? Exactly.
Your community is in our prayers. With a heavy heart, we sincerely wish we didn’t have to say this –
Welcome to the contamination club, Flint.
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