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The Hillsborough Soccer Tragedy: Who is Responsible?

Liverpool fans desperately try to climb the fence to reach the safety of the pitch while being stopped by the police. – Fair Use

Who was responsible for the deaths of 96 people and the hundreds injured in the collapse of stands at a soccer match in England in 1989? A jury at the Preston Crown Court in England last week exonerated David Duckenfield for responsibility for the Hillsborough tragedy. A 1991 inquiry said it was accidental and not caused by the rush of Liverpool fans; a 2016 inquest said it was disorganization and negligence by the police who ordered one of the exit gates to be opened, and David Duckenfield, the match commander for the local police, was judged not guilty.

When the verdict was announced, the son of one of the victims stood up and said: “I would like to know who is responsible for my father’s death, because someone is.” Who was that someone? The victims’ relatives still want to know.

One can understand the feeling of the victims’ families. Thirty years after the worst stadium related disaster in British sports history, the exact cause of the tragedy has yet to be legally determined. Was it the fans rushing into the stadium and undisciplined behavior during the match? Was it the insufficient organization by those responsible for such an important Football Association (FA) Cup semifinal? Or was it the fatal decision by the police and their commander to open the exit gate?

So far, after thirty years and three investigations, none of the above has answered the question: “Who was responsible?”

Without minimizing the feelings of the victims’ relatives, one could ask why it is necessary to find “someone” responsible. In the case of a New Zealand airplane crash, the organigram of the company that developed the plane was deemed responsible. No individual, no someone, was held responsible. In a famous hypothetical case, the philosopher Virginia Held asked if a random collection of individuals can be held responsible for not organizing to overcome a mugger in a subway car, assuming that only be organizing can the mugger be overcome. No individual could do the job.

Finger pointing about individual responsibility is common. Much attention is now focused on Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for the crashes of two Boeing 737 MAX planes after two planes went down within five months leaving 346 dead. Since the grounding of all 737 MAX planes, 8600 weekly flights have been cancelled across 59 airlines. And the cries of “Who was responsible?” have been loud and clear: Boeing or the FAA?

But does the answer to “Who was responsible?” have to be someone? Do we have to individualize the guilt? The mother of one of the victims of the Hillsborough disaster said: “Ninety-six people were unlawfully killed, and yet not one person is accountable.” She added: “The question I would like to ask all of you, and people within the system, is: Who put 96 people in their graves? Who is accountable?”

The mother of two teenage girls who died in the crush lamented: “We have got to live the rest of our lives knowing our loved ones were unlawfully killed and nobody will be accountable for that unlawful killing. That can’t be right.” But who was it? “I blame the system that is so morally wrong in this country,” the mother said at a news conference after the not guilty verdict was announced. “If it wasn’t him [Duckenfield], who was it?

Since the initial coroner’s report gave the cause as “accidental death,” the families of the victims have fought to have more facts revealed. It was determined by subsequent reports that the police had filed false stories, trying to cover up some of their negligence. The relatives fought and won further investigations. After the 2012 report came out, British Prime Minister David Cameron apologized in parliament. More information has come out with each investigation and trial.

The final responsibility for the disaster has yet to be determined. It seems that the not guilty verdict of the police commander will be the last trial to determine accountability. The decision has not given a definitive answer to “Who was responsible?” The victims’ relatives still have no answer, if there is one.

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Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.

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