Anger about students killed by drunk driver

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 26, 2001


Monday, March 26, 2001

St. Olaf College President Chrisopher Thomforde put it well: "If people weren’t angry, I would worry." He refers to the anger with which he must now deal on campus consequent to the killing of three students by a drunk driver. Drunk driving cannot be dismissed as normal or even just tolerable; it is, in fact, one of the most avoidable and yet destructive of social pathologies. Drunk drivers are sick and they kill people.

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A car load of wonderful young people was on the way to New Orleans, not to join a mob of other students in wild abandon on spring break. These had sacrificed their leisure and convenience in volunteering to teach in a school. Taking turns driving and staying alert to traffic, as they were, is adequate for usual conditions and even most contingencies. Except for the man who chose to drink and chose to drive while drunk in the wrong lane on Interstate 55 in Springfield, Ill. Certainly he chose to drink, and surely he knew what could happen while drunk. He still chose to drive, however much he had impaired his judgment. He is directly responsible for criminally snuffing out the precious lives of three responsible, promising young people.

He is not alone. Others sustain varying degrees of guilt in these and other killings by drunk drivers. There is the bartender who served him excessive drinks. There are his companions, or even just witnesses, who watched him make himself drunk. Those who could have – but did not – prevent him from driving. Those who observed him driving drunk but did not call police to intervene.

More. Perhaps older friends, even parents, who set the example of irresponsible drinking that encouraged this. Such helpful recovery programs as Alcohol Anonymous have coined the descriptive term "enabler" for people who excuse and then cover up a spouses’ problem drinking when they need to dedicate themselves to getting professional help. If, as may well be, this fellow previously drove while drunk and laughed to friends about how funny it was, these friends who laughed with him share the blame. As he drove the wrong way on I-55, he remembered their laughing with him.

A scandalous segment of our society talks about drunkenness as ordinary or even normal. We joke about being drunk, and yet the very silliness of the joking betrays the jokers don’t really believe it is actually funny. But they try. Theirs are self-conscious laughs to cover uneasiness. That unfunny lush Dean Martin bears tremendous gilt for the drunken skits that made him popular on television.

One of the most harmful attitudes is "everybody does it" or "everybody gets drunk once in a while." Excuse me, but not everybody does it – not even once. Those who drink irresponsibly try hard to deny reality by charging others of us with being prudish or holier-than-thou. It is neither prudish nor holier-than-thou to be able to say: I have never driven while drunk. Nor to say: I have never been drunk or I will never make myself drunk again or I do not drink excessively or, even, I never drink.

We obviously cannot count on laws to solve our drinking problems, because laws are both made and enforced by people, many of whom have their own drinking problems – or fear they might. Some legislators are most reluctant to enact tough laws, because they themselves might yet get hung up on their own law. Some police officers too much look the other way lest they be in the same condition one day. Juries often are soft on offenders for the same reason, and even some judges show poor judgment in sentencing.

If this makes some people, even friends, uncomfortable, that’s too bad. The embarrassing thing is the facts, not talking about them.

Drinking is never necessary. Heavy drinking is always risky. Excessive drinking is never excusable. Drunken driving is totally and absolutely intolerable and ought never to be tolerated.

Thomforde is correct: This is something worth being angry about. This is something about which we must be angry. But not enough people are and, therefore, I do worry. I worry a lot.

Wallace Alcorn’s column appears Mondays.