Getting drunk can make you a victim

By Richard Cohen Published:

By Richard Cohen

Curses on William Ryan. Back in 1976, he published a book called Blaming the Victim, coining a valuable phrase and making it virtually impossible to do what his title suggested. Ryan was on to something, but he has nonetheless made it a lot harder to say, as I am about to, that some of people we have made into victims had a hand in their own fate. Specifically, they were drunk.

In New York, for instance, a cop was buried last month with full honors and called a hero. His name was Eric Hernandez and while off duty and out of uniform, he had gotten into a fight with some goons. Hernandez was being beaten pretty badly when he pulled his gun just as more cops arrived on the scene. There was a mix-up, confusion. Hernandez was shot by another cop. He was without a doubt a victim. But none of this might have happened had he not been drunk.

In Aruba last year -- as every devotee of cable TVs justice shows knows -- Natalee Holloway never returned from her last night out on her traditional senior year trip. The high school student simply dropped from sight -- a victim of foul play, no doubt. She, too, is a victim, but from published reports, she too was doing quite a bit of drinking that night. A sober Natalee Holloway might have made that plane home.

On the Mediterranean last year, George Smith vanished from his cruise ship, Brilliance of the Seas. (This was another justice show staple.) Smith was on his honeymoon and both he and his bride Jennifer had been doing some hard partying. She was in fact so drunk that she remembered nothing of the night her husband disappeared. Did George Smith fall overboard? Was he pushed? Shes a victim, hes a victim, no doubt about it. But, in truth, they both might be back in Greenwich, Conn., had they been a bit more sober.

Finally, back in New York, Imette St. Guillen, 24, was brutally murdered this month and her body found in the mob burial grounds on the Brooklyn shore. Her murder so appalled the city -- maybe because of its brutality, maybe because the victim was pretty -- that the cops went into a frenzied full-court press to find her killer, which they say they have. St. Guillen, too, is a victim. But she was out drinking as late as 4 a.m. and, according to one report, was drunk when last seen.

It bears repeating: I am not blaming the victims for their own deaths. But I am suggesting that by being drunk, they put themselves in jeopardy. I am also courting what is now considered shockingly bad taste -- assigning some blame to the victims -- for a reason: Stupid behavior ought to be called that. Shame serves a purpose. Maybe others will not follow.

That sort of moral condemnation, a fulsome old-fogeyish reprimand, has been distinctly missing in all these cases. Its as if a person is entitled to be drunk, to be senseless, to act like a dope. You hear that sort of thing all the time. On some college campuses, young women are being dissuaded from binge drinking by being told about all the calories they will be downing: see, it can make you fat. Not, see, it can make you disgusting and, maybe, pregnant -- or get you raped or infected with some sexually transmitted disease. No one, I take it, is calling these young women jerks or is brave enough to tell them that they are not, really and truly, the same as men. When it comes to drinking, women and men metabolize alcohol differently. As any sleazeball knows, women get drunk easier and faster. That is not a sexist comment. It is a scientific fact.

When did binge drinking become a team sport? When did young women decide its cool to be disgustingly drunk? When did parents stop slapping their kids for getting drunk -- over and over again? When did getting drunk become so acceptable that Bode Miller, the Olympic flop, was downright proud of it? When did society get to a point that few people want to mention that its dangerous for armed cops to be drunk, for young women to drink with strangers, for cruise ship passengers to get so soused that they could fall overboard. They were all victims -- in the end, of someone else, but first of their own behavior and the widespread belief that getting drunk is, really, cool.

2006, Washington Post Writers Group

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