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Why Doing The Right Thing Doesn't Always Work In A 'Rules World'

A female snowy owl rests on a ledge of a building in Washington, Friday, Jan. 24, 2014. The snowy owl which breeds in Arctic tundra, attracted passers by snapping pictures and watching its rare presence in the usually warmer urban area. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Manuel Balce Ceneta

Finally today, there's a story I want to tell you about. Actually, this was two stories that both appeared in my local paper last Friday.

First, at the top of the page was the story about that snowy owl that somehow made its way to Washington, D.C. While you've probably seen them in the Harry Potter movies, they really belong in the Arctic.

So the owl's appearance in D.C. made the news not once, but three times: first when it was sighted on a downtown ledge - a happy surprise. Then when it was apparently hit by a bus, and a third time when three quick-thinking D.C. police officers offered details about how they managed to get it to the National Zoo so its life could be saved.

Contrast this to another story on the very same page, about the very same city, about how a fire lieutenant and another firefighter were placed on leave because a 77-year-old man suffered a fatal heart attack right across the street from their firehouse.

Bystanders apparently called 911, and these good Samaritans also rushed to the firehouse and banged on the door, only to be told by a rookie that he couldn't do anything to help them until ordered to by a superior. Which for some reason, that superior did not do.

Finally, according to the news account, a D.C. police officer flagged down a passing ambulance and the man was treated about 15 minutes after he collapsed. But he died later that day at a local hospital.

Can I just tell you? I'm not mad about the owl. I'm glad that worked out. And I will not be surprised if there was some tragic comedy of errors that caused the very people who are sworn to try to save human lives to fail so profoundly at that duty. And yes, I feel this keenly as the daughter of one firefighter and the sister of another, both of them now deceased, sadly.

They both had their "issues" as we say. But one thing I know is true: nothing made them prouder or gave them more satisfaction than to help someone else. I know my brother could not pass a person with a flat tire that needed changing, or a wheelchair that needed pushing, or something heavy that needed lifting, without pausing to help.

So, unless I am very wrong and these were some very jaded or lazy or burned-out people — hard to fathom since one was a rookie — I find it hard to believe that these people did not want to help. So I have a theory that what was wrong was the rules.

We live in a rules world. There are rules for everything — some of which we follow and many of which we don't. Some of which are well intended, maybe most, who knows, but some are just an excuse to trap people with invisible trip wires, to cover your you- know-what, or to do nothing.

Now this is not the only example we've heard of lately where the rule might be technically right — air quotes — but morally wrong, and at least in defiance of common sense.

I bet you heard the one about the Utah school where the lunch monitors threw out food that they had already served to a number of kids, because they said their parents owed a balance on their accounts. The school officials said they had to throw the food out because they didn't know who had paid and who hadn't until they went through the line, and once served they couldn't put the food back.

But you didn't have to strain to hear the collective "you've gotta be kidding me" when this story went public. Surely there was a better way to handle it.

I'd like to know why it is that these three D.C. police officers had the flexibility and ingenuity to follow their instincts and do the right thing for the owl, but three other public servants in the same city didn't have that capacity to follow the basic human instinct to save a human life — something which, by the way, they are trained to do.

But even more than that it makes me wonder what stupid rules I'm following in my own life that sound right in theory but are really wrong in the real world. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich once told me in an interview that the test of any rule or program should be if you weren't already doing it, would you start?

Maybe another one could be: what if it had been your father lying on the pavement across the firehouse? What if it were you?

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