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The Lynching of Penn State

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Now, what is "unrighteousness" in practise? It is in practise behaviour of a kind disliked by the herd. By calling it unrighteousness, and by arranging an elaborate system of ethics around this conception, the herd justifies itself in wreaking punishment upon the objects of its own dislike, while at the same time, since the herd is righteous by definition, it enhances its own self-esteem at the very moment when it lets loose its impulse to cruelty. This is the psychology of lynching, and of the other ways in which criminals are punished.

- Bertrand Russell

I imagine many of you will find an immediate connection with this passage; Spencer Hall put it in a much less British fashion in his fine piece, and some of you have framed it in your own ways in the prohibitively long exchanges following discussions by my ostensible colleagues (the question being whether I contribute enough to warrant inclusion among their fine ranks, not the laughable opposite). What is the appropriate response to reprehensible behavior? Does the reprehensibility of the action influence the magnitude of the response?

If you're like 54% of BONers, the answer is likely a resounding yes to the latter question, and the Russell quote above probably fills you with casuistry - No one likes to admit they're a lynch mob anymore. How I wish, weakly and in this moment alone, that I had been one of the louder voices calling for blood from the start of this tragedy; it would have made what I'm accusing us of go down all the more smoothly.

We lynched Penn State.

The mob-crime of lynching is probably as ancient as our species, if not older. It may have disguised itself as human sacrifice, pogroms, witch hunts, or "race-riots" through different stages of our history, but it has always been present. From the misfortunate Jews who lived in a medieval European town with a contaminated well to the ill-fated black man who was seen talking with a future sexual assault victim as late as the 1930's, lynching was always a societal black eye. We, of course, imagine that such acts of barbarism are behind us - mere ink blots on the ledger of human progress - but the fact is that lynching has simply been civilized with the rest of us; it is a part of the stamp of our lowly origin that Darwin remarked was plain to see our species bore.

It has not left us yet. Lynching occurs in our courtrooms, in our lethal injection chambers, and in our prisons. Being accused of a sufficiently sensational crime is as good as being guilty when the mob wants blood to be spilled in atonement. We often joke at (or is the word enjoy?) the idea of sex criminals enduring the same suffering that they inflicted, the idea being that no punishment is severe enough for certain transgressors of our legal code. Lethal injection is too good for these inhuman monsters - a redundancy which gives away much of the game that is really at hand: We seek, through our public and dramatic excoriation of the accused, to deny their membership among us. We are disquieted by the notion, no the fact, that the potential for such blindness to suffering lies in all of us and, in order to rid ourselves of the creeping feeling, we deny it by the most ostentatious display of our disdain. This is why Russell is referring to society as the "herd" and it is indeed the proper word for a group that behaves in this way; it highlights the connection with our tribal instincts. No surprise, then, that we now find this behavior associated with another of our connections to tribalism: our great institutions of sports.

Being on a team is wired into our DNA. Originally, we were competing directly in a life-or-death struggle against neighboring tribes, but now we have managed to shift this need to demonstrate superiority to proxies. Our athletes do the battling, and it is our duty to cheer them on. We go so far as to deify the players and coaches. In the case of Penn State, Joe Paterno was thought of highly enough to be asked if he planned to quit football and enter politics (eliciting the now infamous quip about leaving football to the Barry Switzers and Jackie Sherrills of the world), and he's not alone - certainly every Longhorns fan has speculated in some idle summer moment as to the viability of a run for governor by Mack Brown. What in our minds makes the connection between real world leaders and sports coaches more than just an analogy? I don't pretend to know the answer, but I do see, as we may all do plainly now that the lid has come completely off the scandal at Penn State, the consequences; I see the Mike McQuearys of the world buying so heavily into the moral superiority of football coaches that they deem themselves unworthy of deciding, by calling the police directly, the fate of another human being they unquestionably witnessed raping a child. McQueary didn't think he knew what to do, but he knew Joe Paterno would. He knew that, because Joe Paterno was such an outstanding football coach, he was also in possession of a moral authority great enough to handle the situation appropriately. Where McQueary could not judge, Paterno could. You see already where this is going: Joe Paterno was a better person in McQueary's mind because he was a good football coach.

Joe Paterno was not a better person. He made the same indecision as McQueary out of fear of destroying his beloved institution and passed the report up the chain, until it eventually reached someone who quashed it, either intentionally or out of necessity by having no higher authority to which to pass the burden. [This sentence doesn't do justice to what Paterno actually did. According to the Freeh Report, he was likely directly responsible for quashing the report. Regardless, the point that he was not the moral beacon that McQueary saw him as remains and is strengthened by this correction. Thank you for your corrections. -HB] The result was years of continued abuse and damage done to innocent children at the hands of a man who was caught only by those who thought him beyond their moral jurisdiction. When the silence was finally broken, the house of cards collapsed and those involved are being prosecuted under the law. The law, however, is impartial. From the view of many members of society, this was a special crime. It was tantamount to institutionalized child abuse, and it was committed by a man who was expected to have been a moral lighthouse (due to his outstanding blitz designs on third down, no doubt). More needed to be done! A message needed to be sent that Penn State was a special case, completely unlike every other Division I football program, and that the other programs were members of a class that did not include the capacity to produce a similar outcome. The majority of BONers, at least those self-reporting in a poll on the subject, demanded the death penalty. Some also demanded other things that showed exactly how like a lynching the coming NCAA ruling would be; they demanded that everyone who ever met Paterno to be fired, the entire university be burned to the ground, and a great deal more things involving metaphysical claims about the afterlife and the interior of the Earth that I'd rather not get into right now. The thing they wanted was suffering in atonement, purging of evil by hot irons, and the separation of the innocent sheep from the Nittany Goats. Penn State was at the mercy of the herd now, and the denial of any similarity between the two was all that mattered.

What is the cost of this? I am unmoved by arguments that action against the program harms the economy around Happy Valley; I don't much mind the destruction of false idols. What does bother me is that by greedily heaping punishment on Penn State, we are polishing our own golden calves. The creeping feeling that we, as individuals, may have within us the capacity to cover up something as horrible as Sandusky's crimes for the sake of a football program we have overvalued in our own lives is something that we should force ourselves to confront. We do not better prove that we would have done differently with every laying of the lash against the compliant flesh of the object of our scorn. The NCAA, the Big Ten, and even the new administration at Penn State have all gotten their licks in, trying to perpetuate the soothing lie that the people at Penn State were bad, which is something that we are not. The potential for this to have happened somewhere else existed. The potential for this to happen again is still there. Think about the tempest in the mind of an Alabama staffer that discovered something similar in Tuscaloosa, where the football deities are even more sovereign; what would he do? Sure, you'd think he'd do the right thing now that he's heard about the Penn State situation, but 54% of you were sure that the death penalty was required in this situation, and yet how many people at Penn State knew about Sandusky and did nothing? You can keep lying to yourself and say that the Penn State program is different, or you can admit that something has to give and somewhere in our minds is a McQueary or a Paterno; somewhere within us is the capacity to do what someone just like us did that caused so much suffering. You can admit that to yourself, become cognizant of it, and, by acknowledging it, do much more to ensure that you never allow it to control your own actions.

The lynching of Penn State is a tragedy, because it is the denial of the fundamental fear that should perceptibly tighten our ligaments at the thought of our own potential for inaction in the face of suffering. It is the denial of what we must all accept in order to avoid concretion:

In some potential universe, we are Penn State.