Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Blame Game

Last year, a student here at GW was barred from campus and evicted from university housing, effectively ending his time here as an undergraduate. This dismissal was set in motion when the student met with counselors for his depression and was treated at university's hospital. Health officials then shared his personal medical information with school administrators, who deemed the student to be in violation of the university's endangering behavior policy.

I bring all of this up because it strikes me as relevant when thinking about the "blame game" that happens whenever a tragedy occurs. Could the 9/11 terrorist attacks have been prevented? What should have been done differently before Hurricane Katrina? And, of course, why was Seung Hui Cho still a student at Virgina Tech, even though he had exhibited such deviant behavior?

I don't want to suggest that investigations shouldn't take place or that changes in policy shouldn't be made. But I do want to say that we ought to think very carefully about the balance between collective security and individual freedom. Was GW's campus made safer for me and others when that student was expelled? That's a difficult question, isn't it?

Here's what it boils down to in the end for me. Regardless of how a policy might be written on paper, it is the individuals on the ground implementing the policy who determine its tangible impact. GW officials had to decide, in real time, whether to invoke the school's endangering behavior policy. Virginia Tech officials had to figure out, on the spot, whether the campus should be locked down. One might reasonably question the decisions that were made under pressure. That said, written policy changes would not necessarily have changed these human judgments.

Let's not treat policy change as the be all, end all. Let's not play the simple form of the blame game. These are difficult situations that place decision makers in tough spots. Question, yes. Quick fix, no...



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