Geoffrey Wheatcroft: The hypocrisy of America's outrage

Last week two Englishmen said that they were deeply sorry, but David Cameron had an easier time of it than Tony Hayward. The prime minister’s unequivocal apology in Parliament for what he called the indefensible shootings in Londonderry in 1972 was universally praised for its candour and courage.

Two days later the hapless chief executive of BP appeared before a Congressional committee and managed to dig himself into a deeper hole than ever, quite failing to propitiate the wrath of his interrogators, not that there was anything he could have done to satisfy them short of kneeling and disembowelling himself according to the formal rituals of seppuku. Hayward is a perfectly competent geologist who has been hopelessly out of his depth from the beginning of this disaster and whose excruciating gaffes (“I want my life back”) -- have won no friends.

But that’s not the end of the matter. If we are witnessing a story of corporate greed and incompetence in the Gulf of Mexico, to match the story of military brutality and incompetence in Londonderry 38 years ago, we have also seen a quite remarkable display of American hypocrisy.

Anyone can understand the anger sweeping America as the original explosion was followed by BP’s seeming helplessness. But are the Americans really the ones to cast the first stones? BP have made huge profits through their north American operations, and may have been negligent. But they were also providing the American government with enormous revenues, and the American public with part of the 20 million barrels of oil a day needed to ensure that petrol there still costs a fraction of its price in Europe.

And American rage at BP might remind us of other episodes. In July 1988 an explosion on the Piper Alpha oil rig in the North Sea killed 167 men, 15 times more than the 11 who died on Deepwater Horizon. No executive of Occidental Petroleum, the American owner of that rig, was hauled before any committee in London, and neither Margaret Thatcher, the prime minister, nor any other politician here used the tragedy as an occasion for anti-American polemic.

Even that was almost trivial compared with the unutterable horror of December 1984 in India, the leak of methyl isocyanate gas and other toxins from the Bhopal pesticide plant, owned by a subsidiary of the American company Union Carbide. To this day no one knows the full death toll, but at least 2,259 died immediately (and gruesomely), and some estimates reckon that as many as 15,000 may finally have died in consequence. As part of their desperate attempt to assuage the Obama administration, BP have agreed to establish a $20 billion compensation fund; Union Carbide finally paid $470 million compensation for Bhopal, and only after many years of foot-dragging. But then as Henry Waxman might say, human life is cheap in India.

Or even if he doesn’t put it like that, the chairman is an interesting figure. Waxman is the “Member for Hollywood”, with a congressional district including Beverly Hills and Santa Monica. He may have little love for “the Brits”, but he is needless to say an ardent friend of Israel. Only a couple of weeks before his denunciation of Hayward, Waxman strongly defended the operation against off the coast of Gaza against the Mavi Marmara, which “never intended to carry out a peaceful humanitarian mission”. Israeli soldiers only reacted in self-defence, Waxman insisted, and the “international rush to condemn Israel for defending citizens and soldiers under attack is a travesty” (quite unlike the rush to condemn BP).

Not that this is the only kind of American double standard. For years past, the United States (and its stooges here, alas) have spoken of waging a “war on terror”, a phrase which that intelligent soldier General Sir Rupert Smith says is "without useful meaning". And yet, as the Saville report indirectly reminds us, American hatred of terrorist murder is very selective,

The killing of 14 civilians at Londonderry by the Parachute Regiment was a disgrace, made worse by the subsequent cover-up. It very closely resembles another episode, in October 2000, when Israeli police killed 13 unarmed Arab Israeli civilians who were demonstrating in solidarity with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Guess which of these is endlessly commemorated in America.

While accepting that the Saville report was correct, and that Cameron’s apology was well judged, Norman Tebbit has suggested that there might now be another inquiry, into the murderous IRA bombing at the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton 1984. “Just as the families of the victims at Londonderry had a right to know whether people in high places had plotted the killings, so the surviving victims and the families of the dead of Brighton deserve to know if the killer Magee acted on his own, or whether the murders were plotted by people in IRA--Sinn Fein – and, if so, who those plotters were.” He refrains from mentioning that his own wife was left in a wheelchair for life by that outrage.

And Lord Tebbit doesn’t mention something else. The Brighton bomb, and the fire bomb which burned 12 people to death when they were attending parties at La Mon House hotel, and the bomb which killed 11 people at a Remembrance Day service in Enniskillen, and the Shankill Road bomb which killed nine Protestants, two of them children, and all the other bombs exploded and bullets fired by the IRA over a quarter century, were paid for at least in part by money raised in the United States. Again, guess how much time congressional committees have devoted to investigating that American-bred campaign of murder.

To say all this may be called “anti-American”. As it happens, it’s written by someone with a deep affection for the United States as a country and the Americans as a people. But, really, has there ever been such a land of humbug and hypocrisy?