Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Confusion on Campus

About a week ago, a young man attending my university did some serious drinking off campus, lay down and, sometime during the night, died of alcohol poisoning.
That's what we know. Details are frustratingly rare and couched in tentative terms. The Utah Statesman, the campus paper, said, "The drinking was part of an initiation " into a fraternity, "which could consititue hazing." Coulda woulda shoulda. Again, from lack of details, I'd assume that frat-rats were involved in the drinking, but haven't the faintest clue whether it was countenanced by the fraternity (If it was, the fraternity is dumb as a post. If they were getting around campus regs, they're criminal to boot).
We can assume the young man got the booze from somewhere, and that means that at least one law was broken in the process, since the young man was under the legal drinking age.
However, people assumed a lot more than that, at least from the published reports. The university president immediately shut down the fraternity and a sorority, though there doesn't seem to be any evidence forthcoming that they were culpable in the young man's death. Sort of a "shoot from the hip and ask questions later," approach. The words "hazing incident" were also bruited about, and a round-robin of finger pointing ensued.
As I write this a week later, the account from today's newspaper tells me nothing new. The frat and the sorority are still closed, and police are investigating.
First off, the death was horrible. It was devastating to the young man's friends and family.
But. Was there hazing? Hard to tell, but from what I know so far (very skimpy, true) I'd say probably not. Somebody gave the young man booze. That's wrong and stupid to boot. But unless someone sat on his chest and poured vodka down his throat, it doesn't seem to be hazing. Nor does evidence point to active involvment by the fraternity.
But -- and here's the crux of this problem for me. The attitude seems to be: The young man died and someone has to pay. In all this pother, no one has thought to concentrate on the person most responsible for the young man's death -- the young man himself. He played a major role in his own death. That sounds harsh, doesn't it? Yet that has to be taken into account as we assign blame and punishment.
The doctrine of an eye for an eye was never meant to be taken literally. It was simply a way of assessing what a transgressor owed those he or she had transgressed against. A life has been lost. But who the transgressors are and what the transgressions were is a more difficult problem. You can't simply say: "A young man died; someone must pay." At least not at the life-for-a-life level. The part the young man played in his own death has to be taken into account, as painful as that may be.

I honestly think that as the investigation stretches out it will become less of an emotional posse gettin th' varmints and more of a rational process under the guidelines of law. After all, that's what the law is for. Here's what I think will happen. A couple of people will be charged with offenses like providing alcohol for a minor. The frat and the sorority will be quietly reinstated, and that will be it.
It's entirely possible, though, that the lives of more than one young person will be ruined because they were stupid and weak. I hope not. It's also possible that the fraternity and sorority will be closed permanently. I won't grieve over this, as the greek system has always seemed to me a place where lead-heads get together to convince each other that they are superior. But I wouldn't like for them to get railroaded either.
I am sincerely sorry for the loss of this young man. I hope, though, that the loss doesn't lead to a rush to make somebody pay at all costs.

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