Avoiding Institutional Madness

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James Fallows has an insight on the Fort Hood shootings that I feel is wise: "The shootings never mean anything.  Forty years later, what did the Charles Whitman massacre 'mean'?  A decade later, do we 'know' anything about Columbine?  There is chaos and evil in life.  Some people go crazy."

 

I would add that the felt need to learn a lesson from individual madness often leads to institutionalized madness--as with the "zero tolerance" rules that sprouted up in schools after Columbine and result in suspensions of girls found with Midol, or a first grader with his Cub Scout camping utensil.  Indeed, if there's a lesson from these events, it's that we need to be free to act on our judgment about people whom we think are unbalanced--a version of "if you see something, say something."  Sometimes the crazy person is allowed to remain notwithstanding numerous warnings because of the sense of disempowerment wrought by the rights revolution.  Seung-Hui Cho, the student who murdered 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007, had of long history of pathological conduct.  But psychologists and others who had seen the dangers didn't send warnings to the family or university officials because of his "right to privacy."

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Philip K. Howard is a lawyer, author and chair of Common Good. He is the author, most recently, of Life Without Lawyers: Restoring Responsibility in America, and wrote the introduction to Al Gore's Common Sense Government. More

Philip K. Howard is the author of Life Without Lawyers(Norton 2009), as well as the best-seller The Death of Common Sense(Random House, 1995) and The Collapse of the Common Good(Ballantine, 2002), and he is a periodic contributor to the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. He advises leaders of both parties on legal and regulatory reform issues, and wrote the introduction to Vice President Al Gore's book Common Sense Government. A practicing lawyer, Howard is a partner in the law firm Covington & Burling LLP. In 2002, Howard founded Common Good (www.commongood.org), organized to restore common sense to American public life. The Advisory Board of Common Good is composed of leaders from a broad cross-section of American political thought including, among others, former Senators Howard Baker, Bill Bradley, George McGovern, and Alan Simpson. Howard is a civic leader in New York and is Chair-Emeritus of the Municipal Art Society, a leading civic group that spearheaded initiatives to preserve Grand Central Terminal.
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