After sitting through days of a high profile sexual abuse trial at Buena Vista County Courthouse, involving Buena Vista University students whose lives will never be quite the same, I feel like something needs to be said.
The defendant in the case, who was a BVU student and football player, was found not guilty of raping a female student in a dormitory suite on Halloween last year. It was her word against his. But that doesn't change the need for something to be said. Granted, it is far outside the journalist's role in covering a legal matter, but nonetheless, something needs to be said.
In a society that glorifies drinking and drunkenness, and nearly programs that the experience of young adulthood should come in a haze of excess consumption and all the behavior that goes with it, something needs to be said.
There needs to be some recognition that abuse of alcohol can and does play a role in people getting hurt - sometimes hurt in ways that even a good surgeon or an attentive jury cannot hope to completely put back together again.
There needs to be some realization that all people, even in their early 20s, have some responsibility for their actions and their risks.
I'm not saying drinking caused a traumatic and bloody injury and a sexual abuse charge in this ugly case - lots of people drink and even binge repeatedly without something of that scale happening. And I can't say a case like this couldn't have happened even if everyone involved was stone cold sober - we'll never know that.
Having covered crime and tragedies in this part of Iowa for 25 years, however, there is one thing I can say with some degree of certainty.
That a high percentage of the crimes for teens way on up through adulthood, particularly violent crimes, follow use of alcohol. Drug-involved cases often get big print, but alcohol is clearly the drug of choice here. In my estimation, a great many of the incidents could have been preventable.
Let's face the truth. Binge drinking has been an issue with this local campus for years. From time to time it gets brought up and examined, especially when something bad happens, and then the issue goes quiet again. Oh, there have surely been some education efforts made, and good work to have more activities on campus as an alternative to overindulging in the bars, and even a few no-drinking halls established. But largely, it is simply accepted that the students will drink, regularly, and quite often to excess.
The "drunk bus" often referred to in this trial that ferries students from BVU back and forth to the bars gets its share of negative comment in the area, but our purpose here is not to bash the bus or question its necessity - because the potential alternative to having some way to safely get intoxicated students back to campus is much worse to contemplate.
Physical and psychological effects of alcohol have been discussed at length through this trial, though drinking is no justification for overly aggressive or unwanted sexual behavior.
As best I can recall, every student who has testified - legal age or otherwise - had been drinking on the night in question, and most admitted being drunk or at least clearly affected.
By the defendant's own count, he had consumed as many as 15 beers in a relatively short time that night, plus "Jungle Juice" well punch, a shot at a bar and Long Island ice tea. Maybe 20 drinks - but he claimed to have been focused and to have perfect memory of the details. By all accounts, just normal weekend behavior at this age, testimony indicates.
It should also be said that whatever happened on the night in October that led to this courtroom, some good decisions were made as well.
All of the students testifying took advantage of the bus when they knew they were affected by alcohol, rather than driving. The alleged victim took time to prepare her own drinks in a water bottle to take with her to a couple of parties - in a day and age when date-rape drugs have been known to be dropped into women's drinks, and when you may never know exactly how strong drinks are that are being served at a gathering - if you are going to drink, this is a wise choice.
And note that when trouble happened and the alleged victim was hurt and crying, her first thought was to call in her roommate, who "would know what to do."
That's because the roommate was a light drinker, and had her wits about her. She had gone to most of the same places as her roommate that night, had the same fun, even made the same water-bottle type drink to take out with her, but chose to sip her alcohol slowly during the night, consuming only a portion. When other students pressured her into an additional shot at a bar, she sipped a fraction of the glassful, and ditched the rest. After 2 a.m., when the alleged victim was invited to the "after-hours party" in a suite where the defendant was waiting, the roommate was calling it a night and had crawled into bed.
One can drink socially and responsibly, within a person's own capability to handle it. There is not much good to come from drinking beyond the point of intoxication, regardless of what movies and music may tell you. Some people never learn that, and if they can, they will later pull their friends down into alcoholism with them.
No matter what the outcome of the court case might have been, it and the incident that caused it has caused deep trauma for promising young people, their families, their friends. A time they should remember fondly clearly causes tears for the young man, the young woman, and her roommate, and they all will be somewhat changed from an experience they shouldn't have needed to live through in their early 20s.
People watching such a story unfold tend to look for a silver lining, something positive to take away from a difficult situation. There's not much to grab onto here - one student was at risk of losing his freedom for a decade, one may have lost her trust and certainly her privacy in a pool of blood and humiliation. It almost seemed as if she was the one put on trial. Others watched from the courtroom as their classmates' stories play out in embarrassing public fashion and horrible detail - a situation that clearly no one wanted.
Justice? I'm not so sure. The only thing good that I can see here that could come possibly from this - aside from hopefully some closure for everyone involved - is a realization that the measure of a good time isn't necessarily how much alcohol you can pour down your throat in the shortest amount of time. If one student thinks twice before taking that extra drink or taking that extra risk, the trial may achieve something more than it was set out to do.
Dana Larsen is editor of the Storm Lake Pilot Tribune and a former staff writer at The Messenger.