Opinion: Welcome back, death merchants



By Adam Zmick

It’s the late 1960s. You’re an engineer working for a company that makes tires for fighter jets. Your company has a contract with the U.S. military, and you’re just about due to drop off your first shipment of tires.

All of a sudden, there’s a problem. During testing, you realize your company’s tires don’t quite perform up to specs. Your company doesn’t build the rest of the fighter jet, so you have no idea if the defects in your tires will go unnoticed or if they will end up costing the lives of fighter pilots.

What do you do? Do you tell someone about the tests and risk hurting your company financially, or do you fudge the results a little and take your big government contract? After all, the tires were only slightly below specs.

This was an actual case study we examined last semester in Engineering Ethics. The day we discussed that case, the class spent most of the hour debating whether to fudge or not to fudge, and it made me question my fellow engineers’ senses of ethics. If you’re building tires for fighter jets in the late 1960s, what does it matter if you fudge a few test results?

Even if the tires are perfect, you’re still contributing to the deaths of more than one million Vietnamese civilians. Why would you start worrying about a few pilots?

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    It’s too late to debate whether we should have gone to Vietnam or not, and I really hope there isn’t a debate at all as to whether the life of a U.S. pilot is worth more than the life of a Vietnamese civilian. I just wanted to make a point.

    Engineers supposedly are some of the smartest and most able among us. The only problem is, I fear, engineers have become so concerned with what they are able to do, and many no longer think about what they should do.

    Some of the most chilling evidence of this was obvious at this week’s Engineering Expo. For those of you non-engineers out there, the Engineering Expo is a weeklong event in which engineering students walk around to tables manned by companies looking to hire engineers.

    While this sounds all well and good at first, you might get a little suspicious when you realize which companies we’re talking about.

    Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Northrup Grumman, three of the world’s largest manufacturers of weapons of war, all were there and none for the first time. Bechtel also was at the expo again. That company not only builds weapons but also has a record of making a literal killing off of the international access-to-water industry.

    ExxonMobil, another company at the Expo, resembles Bechtel in the human-rights department, and it also has been undermining the fight against global warming by refusing to admit exists.

    Halliburton. I’m not even going to go there.

    Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland and ConAgra, all Expo attendees, claim there is nothing wrong with their genetically modified foods, and yet they all fight tooth and nail to prevent consumers from knowing which foods are modified. In fact, ConAgra didn’t even think that consumers deserved to know when it sold tainted meat, recalled it and then sold it back to consumers again.

    I hope I’ve made my point. Last year, student and faculty protesters handed out flyers about some of the more dubious companies at the Expo. This year, they swiped your

    I-Card on the way in.

    This year, I went to the Expo just to check things out. Strangely, I never was approached by a representative from any company. Could it have been my “Make love, not war” T-shirt? Maybe.

    I didn’t mind.

    Adam Zmick is a senior in engineering. His column runs Thursdays. He can be reached at [email protected].