“Sympathy for the Devil“

After word broke that federal inspectors had uncovered dozens of new, critical safety violations by Massey Energy in the days following an explosion that killed 29 of its miners, it would be tempting to say that CEO Don Blankenship just doesn’t get it. That, however, wouldn’t ring true, given that he’s been phenomenally successful at routinely dismissing failing report cards while collecting millions of dollars along the way.

It would seem to follow, then, that with a 20-year track record of apparent indifference toward the fate of employees who risk their lives on a daily basis to do his dirty work, Blankenship would be worthy only of our contempt. Yet, while those directly affected by his seemingly unconscionable actions may not be able to feel any other way, the rest of us would best be served by including him among those to whom we direct our compassion.

That, of course, is easier said than done.

I first became aware of Blankenship in 2008 when a video of his altercation with an ABC cameraman went viral. Fending off questions about his all-too-cozy relationship with a West Virginia Supreme Court Justice, Blankenship warned the interviewer that he was “liable to get shot” if he didn’t vacate the premises.

Such thuggish behavior was known to be par for the course for the King of Coal – as was speculation he’s long had regional politicians and members of the court in his hip pocket. Little wonder, then, that West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin was whisked to the Upper Big Branch mine via one of Massey’s private planes within hours of the April 5 catastrophe.

In the years following his infamous run-in with the cameraman, Blankenship again appeared on my radar when I began researching an industry practice known as “mountaintop removal.” This grotesque complement to underground mining is precisely what it sounds like: blasting the peaks off once majestic hills, like those in Appalachia, to uncover and extract coal – burying nearby rivers and streams that make up the local water supply under thousands of pounds of contaminated muck.

Sadly, Blankenship’s toxic legacy extends beyond the bounds of environmental degradation and worker fatalities. Following his mantra of leading through confrontation and intimidation, more than a few industry workers have used threats of violence to suppress opposition to coal mining’s most controversial practices. As a result, some citizen activists, like Maria Gunnoe, winner of the 2009 Goldman Environmental Prize for North America, have taken to wearing bulletproof vests to protect themselves in their ongoing struggle for social and environmental justice in Appalachia.

Taken individually, any one of these egregious actions or unsavory inferences might call into question the psyche of the perpetrator. But taken in aggregate, I can’t help wondering what combination of events and circumstances conspired to shape the tortured soul of Don Blankenship. Moreover, can we ever truly know what compels someone to make so many decisions, apparently, without regard for the well-being of the masses?

Raised by a hard-working, single mom, Blankenship reportedly spent his formative years in the belly of Coal Country where the soon to be union-buster worked – ironically – in a union mine, before setting off on what would prove to be a lucrative white collar career.

On the one hand, it is easy to imagine a person with his background evolving into someone who could readily empathize with his current crop of front-line employees. Conversely, it is equally plausible to imagine an individual with his early life experience developing a strong desire for wealth, power and control.

The age-old mystery, of course, is that no one’s personal history (or genetics, for that matter) can fully explain why any of us turn out the way we are. That being said, an individual with a well-balanced psyche simply does not relate to his fellow man the way Blankenship does. In short, somewhere between his inception and the present, something went terribly wrong – leaving him unable to connect with humanity in a way that seems natural to those lucky enough to be healthy.

Not surprisingly, gradations of this sometimes-subtle pathology are far more common than we care to admit. For example: How many corporate lobbyists, elected officials and officers of federal safety agencies have winked and nodded at decades-long regulations designed to protect the coal industry’s deadly status quo?

While the precise answer to this question is anybody’s guess, two things are certain: We live in a society that, at best, considers such actions well within the spectrum of “normal” behavior and at worst, rewards it, by defining the practice of placing profits over people as the cost of doing business. Only time will tell if we have capacity to recognize the dangers inherent in this perspective – and have the collective will to address it.

As for Blankenship, he will likely continue to live under a microscope as authorities debate and investigate his role in America’s worst coal-mining disaster in forty years. And when all is said and done, he may well pay for that role with a portion of his freedom.

Yet, none of this changes the fact that Don Blankenship is still one of us: a uniquely flawed and fragile human being – albeit one who needs a great deal of help. And for that reason alone, he, too, is deserving of our compassion.