On Frozen Tongues and the No-Accountability Culture

A Siro, Oklahoma school bus driver, who is also a teacher, leaves a fifth-grade student stuck by the side of the road with her tongue frozen fast to a metal pole. The bus driver tells the girl that she doesn’t have time to help her, and drives away, forcing the girl to free herself by slowly chewing her way off the pole. The school discusses the situation with the driver and others who are charged with transporting the children, and declares the problem solved. The bus driver, the school says, will continue in both her duties.


It is time for everyone to resist the increasing cultural pressure to create an accountability-free society.

The movement is seductive, I will grant that. It even has the apparent support of the Golden Rule: “I won’t hold you accountable for what you do wrong, because I certainly don’t want to be held accountable for what I do wrong.” The logic of the no-accountability argument is based on time-tested rationalizations and facile conventional wisdom: “Everybody makes mistakes,” “Let he who is without sin…;” “Nobody’s perfect;” Nonetheless, the tradition of exacting no consequences from those who engage in misconduct, blatant negligence or incompetence that cause tangible harm conveys an excessive level of societal tolerance for unethical conduct. Resisting accountability for wrongdoing blurs ethical standards, and makes apathy, cowardice, laziness, not to mention dishonesty, disloyalty and betrayal of trust, seem less offensive and more acceptable. A tradition of no accountability dulls the ethics alarms of everyone.

I don’t trust any bus driver or teacher who is so immune to basic standards of responsibility and kindness that she would even consider not helping a child whose tongue is painfully frozen to a metal pole. I have no problem with forgiving the bus driver; that is generous and kind in itself. Forgiveness, however, only means purging feelings of resentment, anger and revenge. It does not, should not and must not mean that a wrongdoer won’t be held accountable. Accountability isn’t punishment. It is an ethical obligation arising out of the duties of responsibility and trust. Forgiving a bus driver who has displayed such flawed judgment and values won’t make me trust her as if the incident never happened, nor should it. She is still accountable.

American is on a long, treacherous, slippery slope toward a rejection of accountability, and that slope has been greased by our leaders. President Clinton’s Attorney General, Janet Reno, presided over an outrageous massacre of men, women and children in Waco, Texas, and was not held accountable. Nobody in the Bush Administration was held accountable for the obscenity of Abu Ghraib. Nor was anyone held accountable by President Bush for the Valerie Plame leaks. It now appears as if President Obama will not assign accountability for the recent national security breakdowns. In these and other cases, the failure to hold a responsible official accountable through resignation or demotion sends the several messages, all of them bad:

  • Nobody is accountable; mistakes “were made.”
  • The failures are not important enough to make someone accept the consequences of them.
  • We value loyalty and personal relationships rather than competence and diligence.
  • You just have to trust the same people who have already proven unworthy of that trust.

From the justice system, where criminals often are arrested over and over again before they must face any charges; to the business world, where executives who led their companies to financial ruin collect and demand huge salaries and bonuses nonetheless; to politics, where voters continue to re-elect scandal-plagued representatives if they continue to bring home enough federal pork; to the Houses of Congress, where corrupt and superfluous ethics committees refuse to discipline even blatant violations; to public education, where it is near impossible to remove an incompetent teacher; to the professions, where careless doctors continue to hold their licenses and habitually unethical lawyers are seldom disbarred, accountability is becoming a quaint concept, a relic from a less sensitive age.

It is critical that we reverse this trend, by insisting on accountability, and accepting accountability ourselves.

If it is too big a step in that direction to insist, for example,  on the resignation of a Department of Homeland Security Secretary who said “the system worked” just fine after an obviously dangerous passenger came within a  spark of blowing up a plane full of passengers over Detroit, how about this for a start:

Let’s fire school bus drivers who leave children alone in the cold with their tongues frozen to metal poles.

Is that so unreasonable?

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