Privacy and Public Safety

As I write this column, the families of Virginia Tech students and faculty gunned down by an obviously disturbed young man are still reeling, while university and law enforcement officials sort through the puzzle, looking for answers.

It's not easy to predict what the outcome will be, but mistakes will certainly be uncovered in the process. One thing about this profession that always holds true — when things go down, they go down fast. We hope we're trained to react the right way, but since each situation has its own unique characteristics, there often is no obvious "right way" until a post mortem of the event has been conducted.

What I am about to say about this and incidents involving terrorism won't make a lot of people outside of the law enforcement profession happy, but it's a valid point and one of continuing concern. While I am sure the investigation into this incident will find flaws in how it was handled, there's one aspect that is shouted down whenever it rears its head: Closer scrutiny of the individual in order to protect the many.

I know this country prizes individual freedom and it should. It's the foundation upon which America was built. But you can't have individual freedom to the extent we now have it and still protect our homes, our children, our transportation, our lives.

While most efforts to thwart terrorism, like profiling, have received bum raps, the mental health system has been crippled by the Olmstead Act, which mainstreams many dangerously mentally ill persons, and HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which many times blocks parents and agencies with legitimate interests from obtaining information about a relative's or suspect's mental health.

It the case of mental illness, it is my contention that when a parent or legal guardian is supporting a child, the parent should have a right to that child's medical information, and law enforcement should have quick access to mental health information in criminal investigations. And while it could prevent some from seeking help, I think the good such access could bring would outweigh the bad.

Privacy is a good thing. Personal information should be simply that — personal and private. But common sense says there has to be exceptions to every rule. By leveling the playing field in cases where an individual is a possible danger to himself or others, parents can at least keep tabs on their kids. If legal interventions such as commitment should become necessary, then it will give parents the right to move fast and possibly avoid rampages that leave their children or other innocent people dead.

This is a plea for this country to stop pretending that it's better not to know than run the risk of offending or upsetting any group of people. I am willing to give up some of my time and privacy to save my life or that of my children, whether it's revealing personal medical information or wading through new airport security procedures. This is part of the price I pay for survival. In fact, it's the price we all pay — but too many believe it's too high a price. I think it's not high enough.

Not too long ago I was at Dulles Airport when a man, who did not understand English, rose from his seat at the gate and walked away, leaving a piece of carry-on luggage behind. Concerned when after several minutes he had not reappeared, I told the airline gate attendant about the bag. She shrugged her shoulders and said, "I'm sure it's nothing. We don't want to upset him or the passengers."

Lady, I'm here to tell you that "the passengers" would be better off upset, than dead.