Nassar, Uvalde, and the Decline of Responsibility
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As part of my summer of experimentation (really just the summer when I’m super busy) I thought I’d try a more meditative post. Which is to say a post where I’m thinking out loud and I’m not exactly sure where things are going to end up.
Even more than three weeks out it’s hard to not still be thinking of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. And similar to what I said in my recent newsletter where I mentioned abortion. I don’t think I have any particular insight into what we should be doing that we’re not. Fortunately or unfortunately—I’m not exactly sure which—it appears that the debate over solutions for these sorts of shootings has been eclipsed by horror at how long the police took to storm the room. And each time we receive additional details, the behavior of the police, or at least the commander on the scene, just looks worse and worse.
Of course this horror also comes down to a list of recommendations for what we should do differently in the future. Though in this case all of the experts had already recommended something, and it was even a recommendation that “both sides” agreed to. The police just failed to follow through on that recommendation.
Ever since Columbine the recommendation/doctrine has been for police to engage quickly, even at the risk of their own lives. This did not happen at Uvalde, and it’s clear that there were children and at least one teacher who died from their wounds who would have lived if they had gotten prompt medical attention. The teacher died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital and three kids died after arriving at the hospital. In trauma care there’s the concept of the golden hour, that your chances of saving someone’s life are significantly higher if you can get them care within 60 minutes of the trauma occurring. This is particularly true for blood loss. I’m sure you see the connection given that the golden hour was also the same hour the police spent waiting outside the room. Once you take this into account, I’m guessing that four preventable deaths is the bare minimum, that it could have easily been two or three times that number.
As shocked as I am by this unforgivable delay, it was another story that really inspired me to write this post. This is also a story of law enforcement behaving exactly the opposite from how we would expect, and while arguably the damage was not as great, the officials in this story had far longer to consider their actions. I came across the story in the June 10th daily news roundup put out by The Dispatch:
In 2015, the FBI received reports that Larry Nassar was sexually abusing gymnasts in his role as team physician for USA Gymnastics and elsewhere. Instead of sharing this information with local law enforcement, FBI agents delayed victim interviews, fabricated witness statements, and later lied to investigators—one even tried to get a job with the U.S. Olympic Committee during his investigation, according to an inspector general report.
Between the 2015 reports and Nassar’s arrest more than a year later, he abused at least 70 girls and women, the inspector general investigation concluded. “People at the FBI had their own chance to stop this monster back in 2015 and failed,” FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress last year. “I’m deeply and profoundly sorry.”
But the Department of Justice has declined three times to pursue charges against agents involved in bungling the investigation, noting the third time that its decision did not “in any way reflect a view that the investigation of Nassar was handled as it should have been.”
Both of these stories make me sick to my stomach, and similar to the story of Uvalde, the Nassar story also has the quality that the more you know the worse it looks. This is the opposite of most stories, where the deeper you dig the more sympathy you develop for both sides. Here, the more I dig the less defensible the actions of the Uvalde police and the FBI agents appear.
I’ve uncovered many disturbing details in both stories—for example, while the lawsuit by the gymnasts focuses on the period starting in 2015, there’s evidence that Nassar started abusing Gymnasts as early as 1994! But amidst all these details, the bit that jumped out at me about both stories and the commonality I wanted to discuss in this post is both the lack of responsibility—No one is saying “I screwed up” emphasis on the “I”—and the lack of consequences.
What consequences should there be? Well, with Uvalde, I prefer to let the various investigations conclude before making any definitive statements. And it’s certainly too early to say that consequences have been lacking, though I strongly suspect that that will be how it ends up. However it’s not too early to talk about the Nassar situation. I dug pretty deep and the only consequence I could uncover was that one FBI agent, Michael Langeman, had been fired over things, but not until September of 2021! The other agent who had been involved in things and who was, in fact, more senior, W. Jay Abbott, retired in 2018 (at 57, we should all be so lucky) and is apparently doing great on his government pension.
Of course if I’m going to claim that all of the foregoing was bad, I should be prepared to put forth some alternatives, some suggestions for how things should have gone instead. And yes, I do have some ideas, but as I mentioned at the beginning I’m still thinking through this problem, I’m not ready to make any concrete recommendations. But let’s start the process by considering two things:
First, how is it that someone can say something dumb on social media and the whole world will rush to condemn them—for example, as I write this everyone is piling on James Patterson because he said that white men struggling to find writing jobs is “just another form of racism”—but do something awful like stand by as kids bleed out, or ignore a serial sexual predator, and you can largely remain entirely anonymous and continue with your life as if nothing happened. I’m sure that, from here on out, anytime someone talks about Patterson this assertion will get mentioned, up to and including his obituary, while the police officers and FBI agents will soon be forgotten.
I’m not advocating that everyone involved with Nassar and Uvalde should be tried and condemned on social media. In fact I’m reasonably certain that no one should be tried on social media. No, I’m more pointing out the strangeness of our priorities. To provide a different example consider the story of Justine Sacco. Sacco made an unfortunate joke about AIDS on Twitter just before boarding a flight to South Africa, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” I’m sure most of my readers have heard this story and that many of you had heard the name, Justine Sacco, how many of you were familiar with the details of the FBI agents incompetence with Nassar? How many of you had heard the names of those agents? I assume far more of you are in the former camp than the latter.
Sacco’s life was ruined by that tweet. She was subjected to brutal online harassment, she lost her job, and for years afterwards she was unemployable. It was so bad that books have been written about it. Hopefully it’s gotten better, but compare that to W. Jay Abbott, who’s comfortably retired, and even Michael Langeman kept his job for six years before finally being fired for his gross dereliction of duty. The disparity between these two crimes, (if Sacco’s tweet even rises to that level) and their punishments is so egregious that one feels they’re looking at two different realities, or perhaps reading two different novels, written by different authors and in completely different genres.
To be fair, disparities in punishments were very common historically, but they generally involved wealth and class. The Uvalde police, and the FBI agents—despite Abbot’s comfortable retirement—are not wealthy, so then what class do they belong to that makes them largely immune from consequences?
I’ll get to that in a bit, but before I do, discussing the historical norms takes me to the second point I wanted to examine: How were these sorts of disasters handled in the past?
I have strong feelings about how they should be handled. I think the people in question should accept responsibility, admit that they failed, and resign. In addition to my strong feelings I also have a strong impression that this is how it used to work, but I haven’t been able to find a lot of hard data to back me up. (Perhaps because I’m not entirely clear what sort of data set would cover those events.) Despite this, my sense is that it used to be far more common, when something like Uvalde or Nassar happened, for people to resign, sometimes in disgrace but more often out of a sense of duty. In the latter case the idea was that preventing just this sort of event was so fundamental to their job that the fact that it happened meant that they were clearly unqualified to continue performing that job, and as such they resigned. Here, after spending a lot of time talking about consequences, we return to the question of responsibility. Resigning was an assumption of responsibility. Resigning didn’t mean that you were 100% responsible. As frustrating as the actions of the Uvalde police were, and as incompetent and craven as the FBI agents were, the shooter and Nassar still bear the vast majority of the responsibility. But surely there is some small percentage that should be assumed by law enforcement in these cases, given what we now know.
So then the question is, why don’t we do that anymore? Or if I’m wrong and such resignations never happened, even in the past (which I doubt, though perhaps I have an exaggerated impression of how common they were) we still have to answer the question: why couldn't it happen now? Why doesn’t Pete Arredondo, (Are-re-don-doe) the commander on the scene at Uvalde resign? (Instead he was quietly sworn in to a position on the City Council.) Why didn’t anyone in the FBI resign? And to be clear, I’m not saying that if they did that it would make it all better. It might be appropriate for there to be additional consequences, but accepting responsibility and resigning would be a very good start.
But it doesn’t happen, and once again we’re reminded of the disproportionate nature of things. Currently, it seems comparatively easy to get people to resign over an ill chosen statement, but somehow it’s inconceivable that someone might resign because they have completely failed at their job. But job failure would seem to be precisely the kind of thing where resignation from that same job would be appropriate. So why doesn’t it happen? And does it give us any insight into the larger problem of law enforcement failure? As you might imagine I have some theories, so let’s go through them:
One obvious factor has to be legal liability. If you admit to any percentage of the overall responsibility then presumably that’s the percent of the damages you’re liable for. If the gymnasts suffered, collectively, $1 billion dollars in harm (which is actually what they’re seeking from the FBI) and by resigning you essentially admit to 1% of the responsibility, then that’s $10 million dollars. And it’s certainly possible that this is the whole of the explanation, that as claims for damages have increased both in frequency and amount that there is a vast disincentive towards anything that might appear to be an admission of guilt. Perhaps that’s all it is, and I should just end here. But I think there’s more going on, and it’s possible that increased litigiousness isn’t the disease, it's just one more symptom of something deeper.
Obviously one of the great achievements of western democracy has been the concept and gradual solidification of “rule of law”. But of course as I just mentioned, it’s possible that we have gone too far, that we rely too much on defining what exactly is lawful and what exactly isn’t, which often involves lawsuits. One place where this over-reliance is most pronounced, to the point of it being a cliche, is within government bureaucracies, which is precisely where law enforcement sits. Now, you may argue that in both of the examples, the people in question weren’t following the law, but I don’t think that’s the case. The failure in Uvalde didn’t involve rule breaking, they ignored a guideline, but they were scrupulous about following rules, particularly the rule about obeying the chain of command. No officer decided to disobey Arredondo and go in regardless, and officers were equally rigorous about keeping parents away from the school. As far as the FBI situation, given the fact that the FBI has three times refused to prosecute the agents, presumably they didn’t break any obvious laws either, as far as rules, that seems less clear, but my guess is that the agents in question were exquisitely aware of where the law actually drew the line and they were very careful to never cross it.
This all takes us back to a discussion of responsibility, and I think both of the foregoing points can be traced back to a decline in personal responsibility. And I know that the minute someone complains about something like this they get put in the “grumpy old man” category (which is indeed precisely what I am) but clearly this post has given two examples that are clear demonstrations of a deficit of personal responsibility, the question is whether this deficit is broader than that—if it’s something that’s endemic. I would claim that it is, though I don’t have the time to back up that claim. So, I’m kind of just tossing it out there, but before you dismiss it ask yourselves what incentives are currently in place to encourage responsibility? And what about the opposite, what incentives are there that have the effect of discouraging the acceptance of responsibility? I’ve already provided two examples in the latter category: litigiousness and bureaucracies.
To wrap things up I have two more thoughts, each of which is even more speculative, but despite that (or more likely because of it) I find them to be the most interesting of the factors I’ve discussed.
I have commented before about the current overemphasis on safety, nor am I the first to do so. It certainly was and continues to be a huge factor in our response to COVID, but was it also a factor in the two examples we’ve been discussing? I’m not sure it played a factor in the investigation (or lack thereof) of Nassar, though I could certainly imagine that one of the reasons the agents didn’t try very hard is that they were getting pushback from “entrenched interests” as they’re euphemistically known. And they tried to “play it safe”. This would go a long way to explaining Abbott’s attempt to secure a job with the Olympics. On the other hand, safetyism seems to have clearly played a role in Uvalde. Officer safety was the main reason given for the delay, and while I don’t want to discount that, I am once again of the strong opinion that it would not have been such a large concern had this happened in the past. I am convinced that there was a time, not that long ago, when there would have been officers who would have rather died trying to save those children, then lived with the guilt of standing outside the door for an hour while those children bled to death. Perhaps they still exist and were there, but decided to defer to Arredondo or other officers. If so I have a lot of sympathy for them, I can only imagine what sort of guilt they may be experiencing now.
Finally, there’s the closely related idea of heroes. There were no heroes in either of these stories, nor can I remember that last time someone doing something truly heroic ended up being big news. I assume that this dearth is related to a lot of things I’ve already discussed, but I wonder if it’s also related to the attention one receives for being heroic. There’s a theory that school shootings are all about the notoriety given to the shooter. That’s the reason troubled people commit these horrible acts, it will make them important even if it’s posthumously. Does that work the other way as well? Probably. I assume that someone might decide to do something heroic in a similar bid to feel important. So why did it not happen in my two examples? Why didn’t someone from the FBI, or heck why didn’t someone in all the time since 1994 stand up and make sure Nassar was arrested? And why, out of all the cops on the scene in Uvalde, didn’t one or a dozen step up and decide that they couldn’t wait any longer.
One would think that we would want the world to be set up in such a way that we encourage heroism. But clearly that’s not the case. I think all the things I’ve mentioned thus far serve to dissuade heroes, the chance of a lawsuit, the bureaucratic nature of the world, etc. And it’s possible that it’s even worse, that we have somehow twisted things so that the modern world is excellent at creating villains and awful at creating heroes. It’s easy to imagine this happening as a side effect of social media. If you’re interested in being infamous, then that’s easy to accomplish through social media, but being heroic on social media is a lot harder. If nothing else you have invited people to examine the rest of your life, and somewhere during all the time you spent not being a hero will be something people find objectionable, and you’ll go from being a hero to an object of scorn and ridicule at least for half the country. Beyond all the other things I’ve mentioned this system has to create a powerful disincentive for the average person who stumbles into a chance to be heroic.
I started this post, and the discussion of Nassar and Uvalde with the vague idea that there needed to be more consequences for members of law enforcement who dramatically failed in their duty, But is it possible the problem is the inverse of that? That the problem is not that villains don’t get punished, but rather that heroes don’t get rewarded.
From my perspective this is another late post. I don’t know if you’re keeping track or if you even care. But I do really try to get out four pieces a month. If you appreciate the guilt I feel when I’m not publishing as often as I think I should, or even if you’re just amused by it, consider donating.