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Fault lines

How can we define fairness in the case of Brandon Bostian?

Fault lines

Bostian walks to a police station to turn himself in. (Associated Press/Photo by Matt Rourke)

If it had been concocted by a college ethics professor to test students’ grasp of the principles of fairness, you couldn’t have found a more challenging case than the Brandon Bostian story.

On May 12, 2015, the Amtrak train he was conducting accelerated to 106 miles per hour in a 50 mph zone at the Frankford Junction curve in Philadelphia, derailing the seven cars and resulting in the deaths of eight people and injury to over 150.

Two years later an investigation still found no evidence of drugs, alcohol, or cell phone use as culpable explanations, and the 34-year-old Bostian, a lifelong train aficionado, remembers nothing of the incident. I read with interest in the local papers that after the National Transportation Safety Board reached its conclusions, Philadelphia’s district attorney’s office declined to press charges on the engineer.

Then I waited for the other shoe to drop.

It dropped the next week when, under a Philadelphia statute dating from colonial times that allows private citizens to file criminal complaints, relatives of one of the victims caused the inquiry to be reopened, and the state attorney general filed criminal charges against Bostian, who now faces eight counts of involuntary manslaughter. On May 18, authorities took him away in handcuffs.

We live in times in America when a tragedy is always someone else’s fault—and somebody’s going to pay!

So what do you think? I know what the plaintiffs’ lawyer thinks: “There are people in relentless, debilitating, brutal pain, who have lost their jobs, and who have lost their futures, because of Mr. Bostian’s actions” (Thomas Kline). And there is no gainsaying that: People have been hurt and killed.

Putting the train wreck mystery aside, it must be admitted by any sentient being that we live in times in America when a tragedy is always someone else’s fault—and somebody’s going to pay! There are no such things as accidents (this is why malpractice-fearing obstetricians prefer cesarean sections to vaginal births). Also in this present climate there is no possibility of ever doing enough penance for what your great-granddaddy allegedly did. Or even not your great-granddaddy but a person of his pigmentation from some other vilified European country.

The Bible, on the other hand, says you need at least two witnesses to convict a man of a crime; you don’t punish a man on suspicion. Does Bostian have a paper trail of boasts to friends that he has a mind to someday speed up the train at the curve? No. The fact that lives have been lost is not in itself proof of criminal intent or negligence:

“A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established” (Deuteronomy 19:15).

“How is that fair!” the mob cries. “People are dead and they’re not coming back!”

The problem comes from trying to define fairness in a world where all that exists is what is under the sun. A God-less world would be a game changer even for the Apostle Paul. After laying out an entire chapter on the Christian’s glorious destiny—Jesus died for sins; was raised; appeared to many; ascended to heaven; will come again; will call us to himself in order; will put all his enemies under his feet; will deliver the kingdom to God—Paul waxes philosophical: “Otherwise, … ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’” (1 Corinthians 15:29-32).

That’s only reasonable.

But God is in heaven, and it makes all the difference. Not as a scolding but a promise Paul says: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine. I will repay, says the Lord’” (Romans 12:19).

Be ever wary, believer, of people who have only this life and so must find their justice here: “Deliver my soul from … men of the world whose portion is in this life” (Psalm 17:13-14).

“Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight. / At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more. / When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death, / And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again” (C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe).


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  • Laura W
    Posted: Sun, 05/28/2017 09:16 pm

    I don't think it would be very reasonable to accuse him of criminal intent, but you write that it's involuntary manslaughter that he's being charged with, not murder. Lives were lost in a situation where he was in charge (plenty of witnesses for that much), so I think at least having the trial seems like the right thing to do. Though I'm not sure whether it's actually possible to distinguish between equipment malfunction and operator error in this situation.

  • MamaC
    Posted: Sun, 06/04/2017 09:36 am

    While I completely agree that there's way too much blame-slinging and insistence on finding someone at fault for every accident, I think it's perfectly reasonable to charge the engineer with negligence when he was operating the train at more than twice the speed limit.

  • Wyo mom
    Posted: Sun, 06/04/2017 10:14 am

    Well said.

  • HJM
    Posted: Sun, 06/04/2017 11:08 am

    If I had lost a loved one in this situation, and there was not sufficient evidence that the engineer purposefully neglected his duties or purposefully put people in danger, his conviction and "penance " would not bring relief from the grief I would feel at losing one I loved.  The problem with the philosophy that someone must pay is that it won't bring peace to the person hurting.  The Christian realizes this, but the non-believer is grasping for anything that will bring peace.  However, they will still hurt, destroying another man's life will not bring them the peace they desire.  It only feeds the desire for vengance, which, as we can see in the non-peaceful marches and protests occuring more and more frequently, is an ugly task master.

  • DB's picture
    Posted: Mon, 06/05/2017 01:36 pm

    According to this article, the engineer does not remember what happened and drugs and alchol was ruled out and there was no cell phone usage.  So the questionn remains, why doesn't he remember?  Has he been medically examined?  Did he have a seizure, fall asleep at the wheel... so to speak?  Something happened and I think families just want answers and prevention measures taken for the future.