How do you grant humanity to those who would deny yours? Warren Anderson, CEO of Union Carbide at the time of the industrial disaster in Bhopal, India on December 2-3, 1984 that killed over 20,000 people, died in Florida last month, although news of his death became public only recently.
Wanted on criminal charges in India, at least in theory, Anderson lived out his life in comfort in the United States until the age of 92—fishing, gardening, and baking bread, occasionally bothered by a pesky environmental activist, but untroubled for the most part by governments Indian or American. Perhaps he was even unaware of the angry slogan, “Hang Anderson,” that can still be seen on the walls surrounding the abandoned factory.
Although Anderson was already dead when I wrote the closing lines to my essay for The Baffler, “The Worst Industrial Disaster in the History of the World,” I had thought he was still alive as I typed out, “But truth be told, no one really wants to, should they get the chance, place a noose around the neck of a former CEO. The Anderson they want to hang is Union Carbide, Dow, the Indian government, the India-U.S. CEO Forum.”
What if I’d written something else, something far angrier, some invective directed at Anderson the man? What would be wrong with that, or with expressing anger even after the knowledge of his death? In a way, he was an enemy, a devoted ally of the corporate system that sows misery for the disempowered. Do we really need to mourn one of them? After all, the sign I saw outside a New York pub in 2011, the one that said “Osama Special: Two Shots and a Splash of Water,” surely showed me that one should celebrate, not mourn, the death of an enemy.
Yet I think I would have felt slightly ashamed, had I written something bitter and then discovered that Anderson had died. The anger one feels about Bhopal is the anger one feels about injustice; and that injustice is a structural matter, larger than just one old man—even if that old man evinced no interest or genuine sympathy for those whose ruined lives had become connected to his.
So, rest in peace, Warren Anderson, 1920-2014. We never wanted to hang you. The Anderson we want to hang is still Union Carbide, Dow, the Indian government, the India-U.S. CEO Forum. The Anderson we want to hang is still Uncle Sam, the imperialist and plutocrat in his striped trousers and top hat. The Anderson we want to hang is still an evil thing, a meteorite, an alien visitation.