Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The price of freedom 

As I read various reactions to the tragedy at Virginia Tech, the common thread seems to be an attempt to read policy prescriptions into the event. More gun control or less, for example? Is campus security strong enough? Are there enough valiant men?

Yet I find instead that most reactions at first are the product of a small sample of relatively rare events. Some people argue that we overreacted to 9/11 because it was just one of those catastrophic moments that can happen in a free society. It is only in piecing back the signs from there that we realize the events are not rare, the risks quite substantial. It's an argument over such boring things as probabilities, elasticities and expected values.

So too with the VT tragedy. What's the relevant sample of possible incidents with disgruntled students, and how many times do they really happen? Glenn Reynolds says not many. What is the increased likelihood of a psychopath gaining a weapon if guns are allowed on campus? Jules Crittenden says "doesn't really matter." What is important is that decisions are done with detachment, with rational assessments of all the boring numbers. And someone, somehow, has to price freedom in the equation.

Grieving comes first; time will allow better decisions to be made.

UPDATE: Found this note by the Dean Dad (via Stephen):
College campuses are incredibly vulnerable places. They're open, they're highly populated, they're lightly patrolled (if at all), and they're full of stressed-out people. In a way, they're almost naive, if it's possible for institutions to be naive. As I've mentioned before, they really aren't built for easy lockdown modes. Most were built before that term was even coined.
Absolutely so. I have never found myself thinking about my own safety in mediating disputes between students and faculty (grade appeals, classroom behavior, cheating/plagiarism), but I guess it will cross my mind for a few weeks now. Then I'll go back to my usual "these are my students, they're good kids" frame of mind. But even good kids can react badly to stress.