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Wake-up call



If you want to be taken seriously as a whistleblower in most workplaces these days, your best bet may be as a football referee. 

But even though your revelations may be dismissed, the sound of your blasting whistle still won't have fallen on deaf ears. The agents of retaliation are aware and combat ready. Corrupt systems assure they will always be on top of their game. And they are harder to shake off than a thousand hangovers. 

Which is more inexcusable: the lies we choose to believe against our better judgment, or the audacity of the belief itself? Which is more costly?

Legal authority deserves our presumptive respect even when the instruments of justice haven't earned it. Yet that faith sometimes trespasses on the sovereign territory of sin. The human spiral is what makes the world go around. 

Whistleblower statutes vary among jurisdictions and circumstances, but the general idea is the same: to be able to call out wrongdoing without being imperiled. But the mechanism to do so is only as good as the honor of its enforcers. 

Sometimes they are part of the problem and have a secret duty to provide tactical support to the whistleblower's targets. When implicated themselves, their reprisals, particularly on the governmental level, can be hellish overkill that costs whistleblowers their reputations, careers and even their lives.

Whistleblowers are prone to being blacklisted. Their integrity invites martyrdom. They may be set up by avengers who get compensated with non-traditional emoluments. It's hard to catch these vendetta racketeers red-handed since they may have sole custody of damning evidence. 

Coverage for whistleblowers is like being covered by a bedspread of hissing cockroaches or under curare-tipped barb-wired sheets. Très soothing.

It is surpassingly rare for an ambitious worker on the fast track to promotion not to be derailed for taking approved measures through established channels, consistent with whistleblower goals. Be prepared to pay a stiff price for the exercise of moral imperatives. You can't be conscientious enough.

Whistleblowing predates the modern whistle but not our ancestral propensity for retribution. King Henry VIII dealt with righteous snitches by boiling them or impaling their heads. We have moved on to more subtle temperatures and spikes to achieve much of the same effect.

During the Revolutionary War, two Colonial naval officers reported their commander for torturing British prisoners of war. For their trouble, they got tossed out of the Continental Navy and into prison, pending the resolution of the guilty commander's lawsuit against them.

Reminds me of the school payroll secretary who refused a principal's order to document overtime the school leader had not performed. He lodged a bogus allegation against her, prefixed to look unrelated, and she got reassigned far afield. The credibility of accusers seems more likely to be taken for granted, and vindication more distinctly possible, among those with the higher pay grade.

America needs a Whistleblowers Hall of Fame. Or at least a monument park.

We celebrate "one-hit wonder" rock stars of past generations who, thanks to idol worship, have parlayed a single song into a perpetual lucrative career into their geriatric dotage, but "one-hit whistleblowers" who may have saved our nation from itself, are too obscure for inclusion in a quiz of esoteric trivia.

Self-sacrifice is its own reward.

Sherron Watkins, who exposed Enron, Harry Markopolis, who sniffed out Bernie Madoff, and Jeffrey Wigand, who outed the tobacco industry's conspiracy to spur on addiction, are among the heroes who transitioned from headlines to footnotes.

Other whistleblowers, who some regard as canaries and provocateurs, bared government price-fixing scandals, standard operating procedures driven by entrenched fraud, and other malpractice within telecommunications, banking, consumer product manufacturing, military defense and covert intelligence activities.

"Sometimes you must be cruel to be kind.” That hackneyed bromide, which predates the baby boomers, means that discipline in the shortfall builds character in the long term. We learn to tread carefully only after we have been chastised for our missteps. 

Sometimes you must break the law to uphold it. That is also a paradox and paradigm of some utility and instructional value. Or not?

Ron Ridenhour is credited with having brought to light the massacre of civilians in Mai Lai during the Vietnam War. Daniel Ellsberg and Mark Felt took liberty or simply exercised it, for presidential accountability during Watergate.

When is it necessary to cut corners to reach a destination? Ambulances are so justified. But what about declarations of martial law? Emergency measures during natural disasters or civil unrest?

Sometimes there can be a fine line that separates warranted whistleblowing from questionable investigative reporting and leaking. When does the national interest compel sharing? That same fine line may intersect or run parallel with the law. Or arguably clash with it.

Now and then crossing that line may find us in uncharted territory. We must avoid the quicksand of national betrayal. Not all agree on how that is defined but everyone knows what it means or should mean.

Big Pharma and technology companies are well-represented among whistleblowers' focus of interest. Among the horde have been the former Lockheed Corporation, Northrop Grumman, Cisco, Quest Diagnostics and Boeing, which in recent weeks has been in the news because within a short space of time, two consecutive whistleblowers both died suddenly and unexpectedly.

The New York Police Department scores high marks with the majority of the city's population now, but it used to be rooted in corruption and rife with misconduct. It was an internal culture that everyone took for granted or at least let slide. Detective Frank Serpico's testimony before the Knapp Commission was largely responsible for the rehabilitation of the NYPD and the esteem in which it is held today.

He almost lost his life in the process.

Karen Silkwood was a union activist employed at a nuclear facility who testified before the Atomic Energy Commission about alarming safety vulnerabilities. Shortly thereafter toxic plutonium was found on her food and in her apartment, and she died in a car crash that remains a mystery half a century later. 

Peter Buxtun, who like Serpico is still alive, was a whistleblower not of industry but of industrial-scale inhumanity. He worked for the United States Public Health Service, which pursued its "Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.” When funding was no longer available, the 400 Black men they treated as lab animals were not treated with penicillin for decades, although it was readily available in the 1970s. 

Buxtun deserves to have at least a library named after him. Currently a library at Columbia University is named after Nicholas Murray Butler, who as president of the academic institution for over 40 years, kissed up to Hitlerian ideals and "the stupendous improvement which fascism has brought.”

Let's scrape, scour and scrub the inglorious Nazi bastard's name off the library and replace it with one of our champion whistleblowers.

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