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  • In the northwest corner of the United States,

  • right up near the Canadian border,

  • there's a little town called Libby, Montana,

  • and it's surrounded by pine trees and lakes

  • and just amazing wildlife

  • and these enormous trees that scream up into the sky.

  • And in there is a little town called Libby,

  • which I visited, which feels kind of lonely,

  • a little isolated.

  • And in Libby, Montana, there's a rather unusual woman

  • named Gayla Benefield.

  • She always felt a little bit of an outsider,

  • although she's been there almost all her life,

  • a woman of Russian extraction.

  • She told me when she went to school,

  • she was the only girl who ever chose

  • to do mechanical drawing.

  • Later in life, she got a job going house to house

  • reading utility meters -- gas meters, electricity meters.

  • And she was doing the work in the middle of the day,

  • and one thing particularly caught her notice, which was,

  • in the middle of the day she met a lot of men

  • who were at home, middle aged, late middle aged,

  • and a lot of them seemed to be on oxygen tanks.

  • It struck her as strange.

  • Then, a few years later, her father died at the age of 59,

  • five days before he was due to receive his pension.

  • He'd been a miner.

  • She thought he must just have been worn out by the work.

  • But then a few years later, her mother died,

  • and that seemed stranger still,

  • because her mother came from a long line of people

  • who just seemed to live forever.

  • In fact, Gayla's uncle is still alive to this day,

  • and learning how to waltz.

  • It didn't make sense that Gayla's mother

  • should die so young.

  • It was an anomaly, and she kept puzzling over anomalies.

  • And as she did, other ones came to mind.

  • She remembered, for example,

  • when her mother had broken a leg and went into the hospital,

  • and she had a lot of x-rays,

  • and two of them were leg x-rays, which made sense,

  • but six of them were chest x-rays, which didn't.

  • She puzzled and puzzled over every piece

  • of her life and her parents' life,

  • trying to understand what she was seeing.

  • She thought about her town.

  • The town had a vermiculite mine in it.

  • Vermiculite was used for soil conditioners,

  • to make plants grow faster and better.

  • Vermiculite was used to insulate lofts,

  • huge amounts of it put under the roof

  • to keep houses warm during the long Montana winters.

  • Vermiculite was in the playground.

  • It was in the football ground.

  • It was in the skating rink.

  • What she didn't learn until she started working this problem

  • is vermiculite is a very toxic form of asbestos.

  • When she figured out the puzzle,

  • she started telling everyone she could

  • what had happened, what had been done to her parents

  • and to the people that she saw on oxygen tanks

  • at home in the afternoons.

  • But she was really amazed.

  • She thought, when everybody knows, they'll want to do something,

  • but actually nobody wanted to know.

  • In fact, she became so annoying

  • as she kept insisting on telling this story

  • to her neighbors, to her friends, to other people in the community,

  • that eventually a bunch of them got together

  • and they made a bumper sticker,

  • which they proudly displayed on their cars, which said,

  • "Yes, I'm from Libby, Montana,

  • and no, I don't have asbestosis."

  • But Gayla didn't stop. She kept doing research.

  • The advent of the Internet definitely helped her.

  • She talked to anybody she could.

  • She argued and argued, and finally she struck lucky

  • when a researcher came through town

  • studying the history of mines in the area,

  • and she told him her story, and at first, of course,

  • like everyone, he didn't believe her,

  • but he went back to Seattle and he did his own research

  • and he realized that she was right.

  • So now she had an ally.

  • Nevertheless, people still didn't want to know.

  • They said things like, "Well, if it were really dangerous,

  • someone would have told us."

  • "If that's really why everyone was dying,

  • the doctors would have told us."

  • Some of the guys used to very heavy jobs said,

  • "I don't want to be a victim.

  • I can't possibly be a victim, and anyway,

  • every industry has its accidents."

  • But still Gayla went on, and finally she succeeded

  • in getting a federal agency to come to town

  • and to screen the inhabitants of the town --

  • 15,000 people -- and what they discovered

  • was that the town had a mortality rate

  • 80 times higher than anywhere in the United States.

  • That was in 2002, and even at that moment,

  • no one raised their hand to say, "Gayla,

  • look in the playground where your grandchildren are playing.

  • It's lined with vermiculite."

  • This wasn't ignorance.

  • It was willful blindness.

  • Willful blindness is a legal concept which means,

  • if there's information that you could know and you should know

  • but you somehow manage not to know,

  • the law deems that you're willfully blind.

  • You have chosen not to know.

  • There's a lot of willful blindness around these days.

  • You can see willful blindness in banks,

  • when thousands of people sold mortgages to people

  • who couldn't afford them.

  • You could see them in banks

  • when interest rates were manipulated

  • and everyone around knew what was going on,

  • but everyone studiously ignored it.

  • You can see willful blindness in the Catholic Church,

  • where decades of child abuse went ignored.

  • You could see willful blindness

  • in the run-up to the Iraq War.

  • Willful blindness exists on epic scales like those,

  • and it also exists on very small scales,

  • in people's families, in people's homes and communities,

  • and particularly in organizations and institutions.

  • Companies that have been studied for willful blindness

  • can be asked questions like,

  • "Are there issues at work

  • that people are afraid to raise?"

  • And when academics have done studies like this

  • of corporations in the United States,

  • what they find is 85 percent of people say yes.

  • Eighty-five percent of people know there's a problem,

  • but they won't say anything.

  • And when I duplicated the research in Europe,

  • asking all the same questions,

  • I found exactly the same number.

  • Eighty-five percent. That's a lot of silence.

  • It's a lot of blindness.

  • And what's really interesting is that when I go to companies in Switzerland,

  • they tell me, "This is a uniquely Swiss problem."

  • And when I go to Germany, they say, "Oh yes, this is the German disease."

  • And when I go to companies in England, they say,

  • "Oh, yeah, the British are really bad at this."

  • And the truth is, this is a human problem.

  • We're all, under certain circumstances, willfully blind.

  • What the research shows is that some people are blind

  • out of fear. They're afraid of retaliation.

  • And some people are blind because they think, well,

  • seeing anything is just futile.

  • Nothing's ever going to change.

  • If we make a protest, if we protest against the Iraq War,

  • nothing changes, so why bother?

  • Better not to see this stuff at all.

  • And the recurrent theme that I encounter all the time

  • is people say, "Well, you know,

  • the people who do see, they're whistleblowers,

  • and we all know what happens to them."

  • So there's this profound mythology around whistleblowers

  • which says, first of all, they're all crazy.

  • But what I've found going around the world

  • and talking to whistleblowers is, actually,

  • they're very loyal and quite often very conservative people.

  • They're hugely dedicated to the institutions that they work for,

  • and the reason that they speak up,

  • the reason they insist on seeing,

  • is because they care so much about the institution

  • and want to keep it healthy.

  • And the other thing that people often say

  • about whistleblowers is, "Well, there's no point,

  • because you see what happens to them.

  • They are crushed.

  • Nobody would want to go through something like that."

  • And yet, when I talk to whistleblowers,

  • the recurrent tone that I hear is pride.

  • I think of Joe Darby.

  • We all remember the photographs of Abu Ghraib,

  • which so shocked the world and showed the kind of war

  • that was being fought in Iraq.

  • But I wonder who remembers Joe Darby,

  • the very obedient, good soldier

  • who found those photographs and handed them in.

  • And he said, "You know, I'm not the kind of guy

  • to rat people out, but some things just cross the line.

  • Ignorance is bliss, they say,

  • but you can't put up with things like this."

  • I talked to Steve Bolsin, a British doctor,

  • who fought for five years to draw attention

  • to a dangerous surgeon who was killing babies.

  • And I asked him why he did it, and he said,

  • "Well, it was really my daughter who prompted me to do it.

  • She came up to me one night, and she just said,

  • 'Dad, you can't let the kids die.'"

  • Or I think of Cynthia Thomas,

  • a really loyal army daughter and army wife,

  • who, as she saw her friends and relations

  • coming back from the Iraq War, was so shocked

  • by their mental condition

  • and the refusal of the military to recognize and acknowledge

  • post-traumatic stress syndrome

  • that she set up a cafe in the middle of a military town

  • to give them legal, psychological and medical assistance.

  • And she said to me, she said, "You know, Margaret,

  • I always used to say I didn't know what I wanted to be

  • when I grow up.

  • But I've found myself in this cause,

  • and I'll never be the same."

  • We all enjoy so many freedoms today,

  • hard-won freedoms:

  • the freedom to write and publish without fear of censorship,

  • a freedom that wasn't here the last time I came to Hungary;

  • a freedom to vote, which women in particular

  • had to fight so hard for;

  • the freedom for people of different ethnicities and cultures

  • and sexual orientation to live the way that they want.

  • But freedom doesn't exist if you don't use it,

  • and what whistleblowers do,

  • and what people like Gayla Benefield do

  • is they use the freedom that they have.

  • And what they're very prepared to do is recognize

  • that yes, this is going to be an argument,

  • and yes I'm going to have a lot of rows

  • with my neighbors and my colleagues and my friends,

  • but I'm going to become very good at this conflict.

  • I'm going to take on the naysayers,

  • because they'll make my argument better and stronger.

  • I can collaborate with my opponents

  • to become better at what I do.

  • These are people of immense persistence,

  • incredible patience, and an absolute determination

  • not to be blind and not to be silent.

  • When I went to Libby, Montana,

  • I visited the asbestosis clinic

  • that Gayla Benefield brought into being,

  • a place where at first some of the people

  • who wanted help and needed medical attention

  • went in the back door

  • because they didn't want to acknowledge

  • that she'd been right.

  • I sat in a diner, and I watched

  • as trucks drove up and down the highway,

  • carting away the earth out of gardens

  • and replacing it with fresh, uncontaminated soil.

  • I took my 12-year-old daughter with me,