Thursday, November 17, 2011

Looking Away

Like all of you, I’m sure, I’ve been reading with some combination of horror and lascivious fascination about the scandal surrounding the arrest last week of Pennsylvania State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. I do not wish to write about the specifics of the case against Sandusky, however. For one thing, I have nothing to add to what everybody already knows, which is what has been repeated endlessly in the newspapers and on television and the radio in the course of the last week. Nor, as you all know, do I ever have any interest in looking past the civic obligation we all share to grant the presumption of innocence to people who have not actually been found guilty in a court of law. What I do wish to write about, however, is a feature of the case against Sandusky that actually has nothing at all to do with him personally.

Unrelated to the question of the guilt of the accused is the question of the behavior of all those others who saw evidence that he was guilty, or who thought they did, and who either did nothing at all about it or else contented themselves with passing the buck along to someone else who ultimately did nothing about it. Sandusky was arrested and charged with forty counts involving the alleged molestation of eight boys over a fifteen-year period. Are there more children involved who simply have not yet come forward? There’s no way to know if there are, or if any of those theoretical other children will now come forward, but the more interesting question to ponder is how abuse on this scale could take place—none of it behind locked doors and most of it in public space in a facility open to staff, students, and visitors alike—without anyone acting decisively to put an end to it. (The investigation that led to the grand jury indictment was undertaken only after the mother of one of the boys came forward to report her son’s abuse after it had been going on for three years. But that boy’s experience was recent compared with what the police now believe happened to some of the other alleged victims.)

The grand jury testimony is beyond chilling not only in terms of the horribleness of what the children involved allegedly experienced, but also in terms of what the story implies about human nature itself. A janitor walks into the shower room at Penn State in 2000 and sees what he takes to be the sexual assault of a child in progress before his eyes. He reports the incident to his superior, as he was told he was supposed to do in such a situation, but the superior in question does nothing at all, failing both to inform the police and to bring the charge to the attention of other school officials. Two years later, a graduate assistant walks into the same shower facility and sees what he too takes to be the rape of a child of about ten years of age in progress. He duly reports the incident to the athletic director of the facility, as he had previously been instructed to do in such an event, but the incident is never reported to the police. Nor does the athletic director bother to inform his own higher-ups. Procedure is followed, at least to a certain extent. But nothing at all happens to safeguard the children who come to that facility to enjoy a day of sports and competition. The matter is eventually buried, forgotten. The world keeps spinning. No one knows. And no one seems to care either.

Let’s put ourselves in the picture. We see something that appears incredibly wrong. We could be wrong about what we think we’ve seen, but we have no more reason to think that any more than any of us ever doubts what we see with our own eyes and our brains experience no difficulty deciphering or interpreting. Nor are we expected to go to law school and only then decide how or whether to proceed. Indeed, the specific legal question of whether the person we believe that we saw behaving poorly is guilty of an actual crime is hardly our call anyway—in our great land, people are found guilty by juries of their peers or by judges trained in the law, not by bystanders even if they walk in on them in flagrante delicto—but we surely understand that something very wrong is going on. And yet we either do nothing at all or else feel done with the matter once we report it, even though we understand perfectly well that nothing has happened, that the person we saw with our own eyes behaving incredibly poorly and endangering the welfare of young children is still at it, still hanging around, still bringing boys into the facility where he is apparently free to behave as he wishes. But, having technically complied with the instructions in some rule book, we allow ourselves to overlook the fact that nothing has actually happened to prevent the perceived offender from re-offending.

To speak about the Sandusky case itself for a moment, I suppose it’s possible that all these eye witnesses were wrong, that they thought they saw something very wrong but were simply misinterpreting what was nothing more than good natured, if excruciatingly vulgar, horsing around. I’m sure Sandusky’s lawyers will attempt to depict the allegations in just that light, but that is precisely my point: it is the job of the police to investigate allegations of misconduct and then to decide if the allegations are credible or not. And it is the job of the district attorney to determine if the behavior in question constitutes a crime of which the accused can actually be indicted. And it is the job of the grand jury to weigh the evidence and then either to return an indictment against the accused or not to return one. But the original witnesses—the individuals who saw with their own eyes what they had no difficulty understanding or deciphering—cannot feel morally done with the matter once they see clearly that nothing has happened to halt the abuse. And what about the boys’ parents? Is it possible they were all completely unaware of what had befallen their sons? I suppose it is possible to look and not to see, but it still seems incredible that the boys’ doctors, their teachers in school, their parents, the parents of their friends, their friends themselves, their principals, their clergy people, their neighbors, their coaches, their guidance counselors—that no one at all noticed the pain, the fear, the emotional distress, or any sign at all that something horrible had happened. Yet no one at all spoke up for, so the indictment, fifteen long years.

The whole question of people—and apparently lots of them—being capable of looking past one of the most heinous of crimes and doing nothing at all about it is the aspect of the case that calls out to me. I was eleven when Kitty Genovese was murdered on Austin Street, just a few blocks from my parents’ apartment house in Forest Hills. I was only in fifth grade at the time, but I can easily recall the brouhaha that followed once it became clear—or at least once it was widely believed—that dozens of people would necessarily have heard that poor woman screaming and yet chose to do nothing to help her. There has been a lot of debate over the years about what actually happened—although it appears to be basically true that she screamed for help repeatedly and no one phoned the police or came out into the street to offer her any assistance—but the whole incident somehow became emblematic of the ability of people simply not to hear what they do not wish to hear, not to see what they will only complicate their own lives by seeing, and not to feel responsible for actions that no one could credibly describe as any of their business.

For Jews, of course, this is an old story. There is a beautiful, tree-lined avenue at Yad Vashem on which each tree honors one of the righteous non-Jews who put his or her life on the line to save Jewish lives during the Shoah. It is a stirring place to visit, but, like all trees, these too cast a shadow—in this case on the vast majority of Europeans living under Nazi rule who were capable of looking on from afar as their Jewish neighbors were degraded, deprived of even their most elemental civil rights, and then eventually either murdered or deported to their deaths, yet who had it in their hearts to do nothing at all to help. In the New York Times the other day, David Brooks took his readers to task for allowing themselves smugly to assume that they would have necessarily have behaved better if they were in Joe Paterno’s shoes or in assistant coach Mike McQueary’s, that they would never have had it in them to look away when children were being abused, that they would have done the right thing if they had been living on Austin Street the night Kitty Genovese was raped and murdered. Brooks’ point, well made and well argued, is that none of us can say with certainty how we would behave in such a situation, that there are people who step up and do indeed do the right thing and other people who simply do not…and that none of us can know with absolute certainty in advance to which group we will belong until the opportunity to speak out or not to speak out actually presents itself. (You can find David Brooks’ essay, called “Let’s All Feel Superior,” here. It’s a good read and I recommend it to you.)

But saying that none of us can say with certainty how we would behave in such a situation and then leaving it at that is hardly enough. As I said before, I have no way of knowing in advance what the outcome of Jerry Sandusky’s trial is going to be and I see no point in behaving as though I do. But I do think we could all profit by taking the backstory to heart and asking ourselves whether we have earned the right smugly to condemn all those who could have stepped forward over a decade and a half and yet who found it in their hearts to remain silent and to do nothing…and, since we’re asking unsettling, stress-inducing questions, also by asking ourselves how sure we are that we would have earned the right to be honored with a tree at Yad Vashem when exerting ourselves to save a Jewish child would have put our own children’s lives at risk. Those questions too, of course, have no answers. But asking them of ourselves can itself be a salutary exercise: to grow morally throughout the years of our lives, we need consistently and repeatedly to look out at the world and, instead of taking smug satisfaction in condemning those who appear to have behaved disgracefully, asking ourselves if we truly know our own mettle…and then, once we admit (as we all must) that we do not, by then asking what we are doing constantly to grow spiritually and ethically so as to guarantee that no one will ever say of any of us that we had the opportunity to do good in the world but simply looked away.

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