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Taking Freedom with Responsibility

A. Arif Husain

An MIT fraternity pledge drank himself to death last weekend, and the whole Greek system has taken a hit. Of all people, I should be the last to position myself on the defensive side of any fraternity happening. But the handling of this last incident has focused my attention on a category of similar cases which together set a worrisome precedent. I'm beginning to wonder if there is still such a thing as personal responsibility.

In the past few years, various private individuals have won massive tort claims against larger organizations for injuries that the individuals themselves caused. The tobacco industry is a prime example. Whether cigarette manufacturers admitted it publicly or not, it has been well documented for decades that smoking contributes significantly to heart disease, lung cancer, and other chronic ailments. It's safe to say that anybody with reasonable interest in his own health need not have been invited to R.J. Reynolds for a private safety seminar.

So why have cigarette manufacturers been held responsible for smoking-related deaths and injuries? Should I be responsible if you cut yourself with a knife that I hand you? After all, there would be no tobacco empire if not for loyal free market consumers. The decision to smoke one cigarette a month or two packs a day is one made by the smoker. Tobacco is legal in this country as a product, so despite the industry's marketing techniques, tobacco companies cannot possibly be responsible for tobacco-related health costs, no more than Sara Lee or Betty Crocker can be responsible for obesity and its effects.

Similarly, the heavily publicized death of England's Princess Diana laid the blame on the now infamous paparazzi for provoking her fatal car crash in Paris. Here are the facts: Diana and her entourage were in an armor-plated Mercedes-Benz sedan, a fortified version of an already hefty vehicle. The man behind the wheel was drunk. French celebrity photographers rode motorcycles and were armed only with camera equipment. The car crashed into a column in an underpass.

I think it's fair to say that the principal factor that led to Diana's untimely death was the reckless driving of her legally drunk chauffeur. Yet, it is the photographers who may have contributed to the episode, and so the photographers are taking the blame.

Time after time, responsibility is removed from individuals who have used poor judgment and the liability is deferred to some other, often larger, group that may have provided them a route. This is a very dangerous line of reasoning. It suggests that people don't own their decisions and that anybody who bears an influence may be accountable for the consequences of someone else's actions.

One recent example of this injustice was the case of a publisher threatened over the printing of a book that contained material on murder techniques that one man chose to act out. How can we accept that providers of information are in any way connected to the way single individuals choose to tap them? Will the future find chemistry professors responsible for producing arsonists and pipe bombers? This line of reasoning is fearfully misguided.

Scott S. Krueger '01, at 18 years old, had a blood alcohol level of nearly five times the legal driving limit when paramedics carried him away comatose from his room at Phi Gamma Delta. He died in the hospital several days later. This case is indeed a tragedy, and my sympathy is with his family and friends. But what were the circumstances of his poisoning? Did peer pressure or outright coercion compel Krueger to drink? Was he was just feeling stressed or maybe reckless? Krueger was underage, so certainly whoever served him alcohol committed a crime. And clearly forced consumption would constitute a crime.

But the issue here is not whether there are individuals who should be held accountable for Krueger's sad death. That there are seems irrefutable. The more pressing issue is whether Krueger himself will be considered one of those individuals, and, if not, whether his fraternity, or the fraternity system at large, can be shown to have acted in a way that justifies such a dismissal.

When I was a freshman considering where to live, I recognized that fraternity life might draw me to situations that I was not prepared to deal with. But I had other options. MIT should act to support a system by which its students are informed enough to avoid situations they cannot handle. And it should work with fraternities to ensure that extreme abuses like this most recent one do no happen. It is important that MIT make certain it is not supporting a fraternity system that endorses illegal or dangerous activity. Alcohol, a priori, is neither. The abuse of alcohol, however, particularly by minors, is both illegal and dangerous.

Banning alcohol altogether, however, is not the solution. Ultimately, people find ways to do what they want. Letting prospective fraternity pledges get a real picture of what life is like in a particular house is a much more rational approach. If college is to prepare its students for life in the outside world, it cannot invoke measures that serve only to shelter and punish an entire community for the transgressions of a few individuals.

Substance abuse and violence are just two examples of current social problems that stem from a complex tangle of circumstances. I dream of a society that will someday do away with many of these. Inevitably, though, eliminating just the outlets for harmful expression will lead only to formation of new ones. And the rest of us will have traded off a portion of our freedom for naught.

A. Arif Husain '97, former Opinion Editor of The Tech, is currently living in Los Angeles.