Dressed in the skin of some “rough beast”, every day heartbreaking news comes slouching out of State College*.
As must be the case with millions, I listened to Bob Costa’s interview with Sandusky, read the grand jury report in its entirety and followed the day by day unfolding of more and more information about who may have known what and when, of whispers of suspicion among coaches at other Universities, of rumors circulating for years in State College, of investigations that went nowhere, of missing records, of a missing DA, of more victims speaking to police, of a judge entangled with Sandusky’s charity, of wildly differing versions of what was reported to persons in positions of authority, of everyone in the remote vicinity of the investigation now lawyering up, of an unfolding pattern over years of stalking and “grooming” and sexual abuse.
Right now it all leads back to the all-encompassing word IF — if McQuerey told his story with the precise details described in the grand jury report to Paterno who then did nothing, if Curley and Shultz of Penn State and Raykovitz of Second Mile knew or even suspected and did nothing, and if Sandusky, that incomprehensible, empty, grotesque man, preyed upon children (I have a very hard time using if in that last clause).
This whole ugly tangle feels as if we are part of a crowd standing outside a splendid house where unthinkable deeds might have been done, and one by one the tenants stumble into the flashing lights and shouts and groans and tell their stories; we cannot see or hear them clearly, but we are aware of the fear and anger boiling among all the neighbors.
If may be the only virtuous word available to use to describe this scandal — it acknowledges the rule of law. If means that we speak in qualified terms. We await proof. It grants that we do not know exactly what happened in that shower, in the Penn State administrative offices or in discussions in Paterno’s home.
If should also serve as a cautionary word for all of us standing in that crowd outside the house. Talking heads on TV, in Op-Eds on the Net, in newspapers and on talk radio are brimming with moral outrage. Some of that is understandable. These outlets sometimes serve to peacefully express our fury. However, the certainty with which many of them speak of what they would have done in that awful shower room sounds false to me. They would have physically stopped the assault. They would have protected the child. They would have beaten Sandusky. They would have immediately called the police. They would have acted courageously and with dispatch. In all honesty?
I believe that some people would have acted immediately to stop the act, protect the child and alert the authorities – those with experience in dealing with overwhelming shock, those trained to keep their heads in the midst of disorienting events, and many of those whose specific job is to protect children. The rest of us can only say I hope I would have acted, I think I would have acted, I believe I would have acted. Until we have been tested, we cannot be sure.
Think about this on a broader canvas. Throw the power of your imagination into other years and other tests. What would you have done in Occupied France in 1943 if asked to hide a Jew in your home knowing that the Gestapo would execute you if you were caught? Would you step out of a crowd on the street and stop a man from beating another with his fists? Would you step into the path of an enraged parent in a well-lit and crowded supermarket and protect a child who was being beaten?
Yes, I believe I would. Yes, I hope I would.
If we are painfully honest with ourselves, the if is always present, even in disguise.
The invisible angels in all this are the investigators – the police and DA’s and their staffs who are meticulously researching time-lines and triple checking stories and plowing through documents and forging relationships with victims and their parents and interviewing witness after witness and then re-interviewing them and then again and again. Their burden is to discover proof and thus to abide by the rule of law. They are the ones trying to eliminate as many of the uncertain if’s as possible through an accumulation of evidence. Quietly, out of the glare of TV lights and away from the fury of the crowd, line by line, they are the ones trying to set a part of the world right.
*“The Second Coming”, William Butler Yeats