Thirty-one years ago this week, an anonymous but perceptive editorial in The Wall Szreet Journal told readers that “on the sea,
there is a tradition older than the tradition of our country itself.
.. and still wiser in its age. It is the tradition that with responsibility goes authority and with them both goes accountability.”
That editorial , titled “Hobson’s Choice,” lucidly surfaced in the media during a furious public outcry surrounding
he investigation of the tragic accidental sinking of an American destroyer with the loss of her captain and 175 of her officers and men.
Perhaps the public outcry against the subsequent but inevitable investigation raged because the ship’s captain lost his life in the mishap and could not answer for himself.
But I believe public misunderstanding of the concept of “accountability” was at the root of it.
By way of calming the troubled waters, the editorial continued to explain that ” the captain of a ship, like the head of a state, is given honor and privileges and trust beyond other men.
But let that ship set the wrong course, let it touch ground , let disaster fall to the ship or its crew, and the captain must answer for what has happened. No matter what, he cannot escape.”
The fated captain of that ship, like the patrons ofHobson’s famous riding stables in 18th century England
(who were given the next horse out of the barn no matter what their preferences), had no choice.
The demand for accountability must always be swift and absolute, no matter how innocent one’s intentions,
no matter how unexperienced, no matter how unwanted. But why is “accountabil ity” so important?
The editorial had a precise and clear response to that question with which I fu lly ag ree. It said :
“and when men lose confidence and trust in those who lead, order disintegrates into chaos and purposeful ships into uncontrollable derelicts.”
Today, thirty-one years later, afte r so much in our society has evolved .. . after so many principles and standards have changed.
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