Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Expectations of privacy, and granting of same

I had an experience yesterday and today that gave me pause to think about what we've come to expect from society in terms of our expectations of privacy, and the lengths to which we'll go to honor those expectations.

My boss never showed up for work on Monday. This is quite out of character for him; a classic workaholic. And even if he were ill, or had gotten called out of town, he'd have left a message for one of us via email or the like.

We emailed him. We called his cellphone. We called his home phone. We checked with the department secretary. No info.

Finally, about noon, a coworker and I printed out a Google map to his house and went over there. Both of his cars were in the driveway, and all the doors were locked. No answer to our rings and knocks. I gained access to the back yard and searched it thoroughly. No sign of him. And his family left for an overseas vacation last week, so he would have been home alone.

For any random individual, you might think this was a case of him taking advantage of having the wife out of town to catch a flight to Vegas or the like. Not P___. Completely out of character. And remember how he's a workaholic? We're currently very much under the gun; trying to get a chip finished and out the door for manufacture. There's no way he'd take off at a time like this unless there were some really good reason.

Given all the above, we came very close to breaking a window. But as we were there not only as individuals, but also in some sense representatives of our employer, we felt the best course of action would be to return to the office and ask our superiors for direction.

The upshot: they called the police, who made pretty much the same search we did, and refused to go further.

Finally, after office hours, I returned to P___'s house. A couple of other senior engineers were there, along with a guy from Human Resources. We conducted a more thorough search, going so far as to search a nearby creekbed - even though going for a walk near a dirty creek in midsummer would have been even more out of character for P___ than any of the other possiblities already mentioned. One of the others was tall enough to see, once I gave him a boost, through part of a window not obscured by blinds. No sign of anybody.

The Human Resources guy, however, had a cellphone full of phone numbers available to him, and one of the people behind those numbers apparently had some pull. About nine in the evening, the police entered the house. And found P___ dead.

No details yet on how, or when.

That second factor is kind of important to me. In retrospect, the obvious thing to do, in the face of all the wrongness of the situation, would have been to enter the house. But even given all that, we did not. P___'s presumed expectation of privacy, and our respect for that expectation, held us back. I have to believe that in other cultures - say, those of totalitarian states, or those otherwise not accustomed to such niceties of civilization, entry would have been accomplished in short order, either by my companion and me or by the police.

And, if the time of death turns out to have been sometime between noon and nine- well, you can kind of see why it's important to me.

I still think I did everything correctly. But I have to say that I'll be pretty unhappy if it turns out that P___ was alive and retrievable during my first visit.

UPDATE: It turns out that he most likely died about 36 hours before our initial visit to his house. That makes me feel slightly better, but only slightly. I haven't heard any official word, and (again!) that respect for privacy has kept me from asking, but the most likely cause of death appears to have been heart attack.


Mrs. du Toit said...

I'm so sorry to hear. Gosh. I understand why you'd be concerned but had he been OK, breaking a window to get in would have not been appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Did you check with a neighbor? Knock on doors? In my view, everyone should leave a key to their house with a trusted neighbor (however no obvious ID as to whose house is involved should exist). Should any sort of situation arise the fact that the neighbor was given the key implies permission to enter. A simple knock on my neighbor's door (with, of course, a serious amount of credibility) will gain you access to my house.