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Unfriend

July 24th, 2012 - 1:25 pm

The Oxford dictionary “word of the year for 2009″ was unfriend, meaning “to remove someone as a ‘friend’ on a social networking site such as Facebook.” The ability to unfriend someone, for no reason at all, is probably one of the last preserves of individualism left in the world. How long it can continue to last in a society where it has become impolite and sometimes illegal to exclude someone for anything other than a specific legal cause is an open question.

The LA Times, for example, has a long article on whether it wasn’t discriminatory to mention that James Holmes, the Aurora, Colorado shooter is white. “Is this racist? Racially insensitive? Or unobjectionably informative?” it asks.  The amount of editorial effort devoted to avoiding the offense of describing a person is enormous. That puts us in a better position to answer Washington Post’s John Kelly rhetorical question that ‘if Holmes was so odd, how did he get guns legally?’

The same way he got his $26,000 National Science Foundation grant, free tuition and admission into the Colorado University medical school. He applied for it and nobody had a reason to say no. “No program that I’m familiar with in the United States requires a psychiatric evaluation for their students,” a Colorado University official said. ”To the best of our knowledge at this point, we did everything that we should have done,” Chancellor Don Elliman told reporters.

That odd phrasing suggests that none of the above disclaimers mean that nobody privately thought he was crazy. It’s just that institutions can’t unfriend you  for no good reason.

Three days after the massacre, it still remained unclear whether Holmes’ professors and other students at his 35-student Ph.D. program noticed anything unusual about his behavior. His reasons for quitting the program in June, just a year into the five- to seven-year program, also remained a mystery.

The university declined to release any details of his academic record, citing privacy concerns, and at least two dozen professors and other staff declined to speak with the AP. Some said they were instructed not to talk publicly about Holmes in a blanket email sent to university employees.

Jacque Montgomery, a spokeswoman for the University of Colorado medical school, said that police have told the school to not talk about Holmes.

As if that were not enough, “the university also took down the website for its graduate neuroscience program on Saturday.”  You can see why some critics thought the academy was overdoing the privacy routine.

Dan Keeney, president of DPK Public Relations in Dallas, said asking for silence from university employees because of a police investigation was appropriate, but taking down the website was “indefensible” for a publicly funded university unless the school believed it contained inaccurate information relating to the suspect.

But hey, if it’s potentially offensive to describe a person as “white”, then who knows what hurtful information might be revealed by the slightest substantive communication. Institutions are so terrified of controversy that they have come to prefer to say nothing rather than say anything.  Recently, Penn State removed the state of Joe Paterno from Beaver Stadium. There is now nothing but a vacant space where the statue used to be.  The statue once reminded the university community of their athletic achievement; later it came to remind them of their shame. Now it reminds nobody of nothing at all.

Earlier Sunday, a work crew arrived before dawn and used jackhammers and a forklift to remove the statue of Paterno from its spot outside the Penn State football stadium. The statue, which was taken to an undisclosed location, had become an object of scorn after the release of the Freeh report, which detailed Paterno’s involvement in covering up child sexual abuse accusations against Sandusky for more than a decade.

Penn State’s president, Rodney Erickson, made the final decision about the statue’s removal.

“I believe that, were it to remain, the statue will be a recurring wound to the multitude of individuals across the nation and beyond who have been the victims of child abuse,” Erickson said in a statement. “I fully realize that my decision will not be a popular one in some Penn State circles, but I am certain it is the right and principled decision.”

Cynics might argue that Erickson removed the statue for the very same reason his predecessors covered up for Sandusky in the first place: to keep the university’s reputation burnished and bright.  And what better way to do it than in an information-free zone. Yet who can blame them? Institutions, like government, are governed by rules and their statements are parsed by lawyers. There is no room in them for what used to be called common sense, the lost art of looking at the facts without the legal goggles. Today, if it’s out there it can hurt somebody. And if it can hurt somebody, they can sue you.

The Joe Paterno Statue Vanishes

The only person who was free to act on his gut instinct was the gun-club owner. He was creeped out by Holmes’ behavior and instructed his employees not to let him join the club.

The owner of a gun range told the AP that Holmes applied to join the club last month but never became a member because of his behaviour and a “bizarre” message on his voice mail.

He emailed an application to join the Lead Valley Range in Byers on June 25 in which he said he was not a user of illegal drugs or a convicted felon, said owner Glenn Rotkovich. When Mr Rotkovich called to invite him to a mandatory orientation the following week, he said he heard a message on Holmes’ voice mail that was “bizarre – guttural, freakish at best.”

He left two other messages but eventually told his staff to watch out for Holmes at the July 1 orientation and not to accept him into the club, Mr Rotkovich said.

Some people might call this discriminatory behavior. After all, what reason did he have for refusing admission to a fine upstanding young man with no drug or criminal record, a member in good standing of a medical institution and the recipient of a prestigious Federal Grant, other than the fact that he gave off bad vibes?

In the aftermath of the shooting at Fort Hood shooting, it transpired that lots of people had been aware that Major Hassan was human time bomb waiting to go off. “But the Washington agents thought that interviewing American Muslims who visit extremist websites was a sensitive issue and did not reach out to Hasan’s bosses at the Defense Department, the official said.” It might be found in hindsight that many of Holmes acquaintances may have suspected that something was wrong — but there was nothing official they could go on. Possibly one reason the University of Colorado has clamped down on the information it has on Holmes is to determine for itself whether anything in the record should have impelled them to act in anticipation, as the officials in Penn State failed to do in Sandusky’s case.

But none of this should obscure the central point. Individual human beings can detect and act on information which institutions cannot even acknowledge.  John Kelly suggested that massacres can be prevented if only gun-buyers were tested for insanity. “News reports have said that James Holmes bought his arsenal legally. But did he really? The mentally ill aren’t supposed to own guns, and is there anyone who thinks this guy wasn’t wrong in the head? He supposedly was odd enough to creep out a Colorado gun range owner. ”

But Kelly misses the point. No store-administered or government-provided test could have detected what Kelly hoped to prevent. Bureaucracies are blind to those who know how to game them. The power of subsidiarity lies in precisely that individuals on the ground, equipped with experience peculiar to their station, can generally find things a one-size fits all bureaucratic mechanism can never detect. Maybe that’s why the Israeli airline security uses human interrogators to focus on the human threat while the TSA processes millions objects in scanners. Despite that, TSA let Underwear Bomber through, and neither the National Science Foundation nor Colorado University ever found any real pretext to deny James Holmes.

Bureaucracies can never “unfriend” you unless the rulebook says it can.  But individuals can act on their own initiative; sometimes it makes all the difference.


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