Why Isn’t This ‘Murder Through Depraved Indifference’?

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Lt. Dan Neubauer, pilot of the stricken F/A-18D Hornet warplane that crashed in University City, near San Diego, last December could have prevented that lethal incident by diverting to North Island Naval Station, as air traffic control had originally instructed.

The jet’s right engine had failed shortly after takeoff from (appropriately enough) the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln. The other engine was failing. By diverting to North Island, Neubauer would have kept the crippled jet over the Pacific Ocean, and away from heavily populated neighborhoods.Furthermore, established emergency procedures required an emergency landing at North Island in circumstances of this kind.

Instead of following instructions, Lt. Neubauer told air traffic control that “I’m actually going to try to make it to Miramar if possible.”

That course required flying over neighborhoods full of unsuspecting civilians, putting them at unnecessary — in fact, morally impermissible — risk. As if tacitly urging Neubauer to reconsider, air traffic control provided him with a vector that took him near North Island, a course that cost a considerable amount in fuel but offered a second clear chance to avoid potential harm to civilians.Neubauer ignored that second opportunity. The jet lost power about three miles short of the runway at Miramar, and after Neubauer ejected his plane plummeted to the ground, wiping out five houses and killing four people — the wife, children, and mother-in-law of Korean immigrant Dong Yun Yoon.

Lt. Neubauer wasn’t the only one to ignore safety protocols. The San Diego Union-Tribune reports that “mechanics had identified a fuel-trasfer glitch in Nueubauer’s jet in July.” The jet should have been, but wasn’t, taken out of service.

Four of those responsible for that oversight — the squadron commander, squadron operations officer, standardization officer and maintenance officer — have been relieved of duty, which effectively ends their military careers. Eight other Marines and one sailor have received reprimands.

Marine Corps officials adamantly insisted that it is “safe” to fly an F/A-18 on one engine, and that the odds against a double-engine failure are astronomical. The Corps held on to that story for as long as it could, while resisting pressure from the FAA to release the critical air traffic control recordings documenting that Lt. Neubauer rejected two clear opportunities to divert to North Island. But the cover-up eventually collapsed, apparently owing to sustained political pressure from families affected by the crash.

Still, as the Union-Tribune points out, “no criminal charges are pending” despite the fact that the four civilians killed by the crash were the victims of murder through “depraved indifference”.

That is to say, the conduct not only of the pilot but of those responsible for keeping the defective plane in service in a largely civilian environment was “so wanton, so deficient in a moral sense of concern, so lacking in regard for the life or lives of others, and so blameworthy as to warrant the same criminal liability as that which the law imposes upon a person who intentionally causes a crime.”

Of course, depraved indifference to “collateral damage” is a salient trait of militarism. This case is different from thousands of others only in that the victims were U.S. citizens, rather than natives of some distant, unfortunate land that found itself the target of the Empire’s murderous attentions.

3:06 pm on March 4, 2009