Accidents Happen

We often say “accidents happen” as a way of avoiding blame. If we went about life worrying about every broken glass or fender bender, the anxiety would be overwhelming. There is a certain relief that comes from the notion that we cannot completely control what happens in the world. But what about accidents that result in serious injury or even death? In those cases, we are less liable to simply respond with a dismissive “oh well”. Someone must be to blame.

In October 2021, the actor Alec Baldwin accidentally shot and killed the cinematographer of the movie he was filming. The director was also injured. The shocking incident led to an investigation and ultimately a decision two weeks ago that Baldwin will be charged for manslaughter in the killing.

The shooting was not intentional so the case will ultimately come down to a question of Baldwin’s state of mind. Did he know that the gun he was using in the scene might have been loaded? Was he aware that safety precautions had not been properly followed? If he knew the situation was unsafe but proceeded to act anyway, he might be found guilty of negligence.

On a large and complex movie set, there are lots of crew with many different responsibilities. There are also lots of opportunities for injury, whether from pyrotechnic special effects, heavy equipment and vehicles, or weapons used as props. The first concern should always be safety, and it appears that on this set, proper precautions were not taken. Some of the crew had quit the previous day. The first assistant director has already pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and the armorer, the crew member assigned to ensure the safety of weapons, will also face manslaughter charges.

Other actors are concerned that the case against Baldwin will put extra pressure on them to guarantee the safety of the guns they use on set even though they are not properly trained. Should it really be an actor’s job to inspect the weapon before they handle it? Maybe. In a situation where someone’s life is on the line, it may be insufficient to rely on the competency of others.

The Forward noted that Judaism has much to say on manslaughter. In the Torah, such cases result in the perpetrator having to flee to cities of refuge. As long as the one who committed the act of manslaughter stays in such a city, he or she cannot be harmed by the family of the victim who may want revenge. In some ways, the city of refuge is a precursor to our prison system.

In ancient Israel, murder was punished with execution. Lesser crimes might result in lashes or monetary payment. Manslaughter, however, is an intermediate case. Because there was no intent to harm, capital punishment would be excessive, but corporal punishment or fines don’t seem sufficient. The victim’s family would likely want a harsher consequence. In the city of refuge, the perpetrator would lose freedom and must leave their home, but they would be protected from retaliation, which is similar to the function of the modern prison.

Already in Talmudic times the cities of refuge system was a relic of the past, if it ever actually existed at all. The ancient rabbis assumed a centralized system of law and order where the state handles justice, not the victim’s family. And yet, even today survivors are included in the sentencing phase of the criminal justice system, and they can also sue for civil damages. Accidents do happen, but human beings must also be held accountable for their actions. We all have a duty to do our best to protect life.

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