I just read this report on the horrific shootings at Virginia Tech earlier in the year, and what struck me about the article was how it was played: “Report faults Virginia Tech response.” I couldn’t help thinking of a couple of things simultaneously:

  • An episode of Star Trek (the original series), “The Conscience of the King,” where Kirk discovers that a Shakespearean actor is actually a cover for an old mass murderer from years ago. Kirk wants to bring him to justice–the implication is that he wants to kill him, and McCoy asks him: “What if you decide he is Kodos [the mass murder]? What then? Do you play God, carry his head through the corridors in triumph? That won’t bring back the dead, Jim!
  • In Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun, Detective John Connor is explaining one of the differences between the Japanese and American ways of dealing with problems to Detective Webb Smith. Connor explains: “The Japanese have a saying: fix the problem, not the blame. In American organizations it’s all about who fucked up. Whose head will roll. In Japanese organizations it’s all about what’s fucked up and how to fix it. Nobody gets blamed.”

Now believe me, it’s not that I don’t believe that killers shouldn’t be brought to justice; I do. And it’s not that I don’t believe that the Japanese don’t point fingers; I think they do. But this was a horrible tragedy, and the knee-jerk tendency to apportion blame, rather than fix the systemic problems, strikes me as, well, insane.

Another good example of this is the recent Utah mining disaster. There is absolutely no question in my mind that both mine owner Bob Murray, Bush Administration head of mine safety Dick Stickler, and probably some others have a major hand in this disaster for doing everything they could to maximize profits at the expense of safety. It’s clear, and they should obviously pay.

But the much more important issue here is, what is the systemic problem that should be addressed? Clearly, the cronyism of the Bush Administration–the tendencies that gave us “Brownie” and “Fredo” Gonzales and all the other “loyal Bushies” who are in high positions for reasons of loyalty and cronyism rather than competence–is the problem here, much more so than the rank criminal negligence of a couple of people. And that is the problem that needs to be addressed, much more than apportioning blame. Because once the perpetrators have been removed, don’t we want to make sure that this sort of thing never happens again? And you can’t do that just by laying blame and slapping a few assholes in jail.

And that’s what I kept thinking about the Virginia Tech newspaper report. They are laying blame at the feet of the Tech officials. People who are probably getting up every morning taking Paxil and Prozac to get through the day, feeling horrific guilt at their mistakes already. What good is done by an official report that points a finger at them? Does that bring the people back to life? Does that make the people who made the mistakes feel better, or perform better? Does it make Virginia Tech’s safety situation improved?

Fix the problem, not the blame. That way, maybe it won’t happen again.