The initial shock of the child-abuse scandal at Penn State was disturbing enough — but what came later may have been even more so.
That Joe Paterno, other coaches, and members of the administration could have failed in a straightforward, utterly uncomplicated moral task — to protect defenseless children from rape — is almost mind-numbing. No weighing of competing interests or complex variables was required. On one hand, you had children being abused, and on the other, the reputation of a hugely profitable football program. They chose the football program. In a condign coda, they’ve done far more damage to the program’s reputation by choosing the immoral path than they would have by doing the right thing. If the alleged predator, Jerry Sandusky, had been arrested for child abuse in 2002 (or at any point in the previous decade as reports filtered up of his criminal conduct), it would have been a one-day story. Instead, the beloved Joe Paterno has been fired. The president of the university is out, and Penn State stands revealed (and reviled) as a corrupt institution.
When people violate our standards of decency, our desire for justice demands a certain social sanction. A crime or sin is a tear in the social fabric, and our collective disapproval and censure is the way we begin to repair it. When that process breaks down, it makes us feel insecure, and makes the transgression all the more threatening.
So it was almost as dismaying to see the response of a mob of Penn State students to the ouster of Paterno as it was to hear about the child abuse itself. When word of the firings first reached campus, thousands of students surged from their dorms and rampaged down the streets of State College, Pa., blowing air horns and other noisemakers in the middle of the night. They chanted Paterno’s name, threw rocks and fireworks at police, knocked down two light poles, and overturned and crushed a local TV-news truck. According to the New York Times, the mob also tore down street signs, smashed car windows, and tipped over trash cans and newspaper-vending boxes. Call it Occupy State College. The only missing piece was public defecation.
What they intended to convey by this mayhem is less clear. A freshman told the Times that students blamed the media for Paterno’s fall. Ah, so that’s it. Well, then, the only obvious answer is to smash car windows and destroy a news truck.
A handful of the braying barbarians was arrested. But the rest returned to their dorms — presumably to finish their homework for courses in “racial categories” and “postmodern lesbianism.” They probably won’t reflect on the irony of a university — the kind of place where a stray word can get you cashiered for sexual harassment — being responsible for the grossest criminal negligence regarding children.
The students were angry and upset — and they’ve been taught to believe that their feelings, whatever they are, deserve to be expressed. Well, they don’t. At least not in that way. As even the tolerant New York Times noted in its coverage, “Some students noted the irony of their coming out to oppose what they saw as a disgraceful end to Mr. Paterno’s distinguished career and then adding to the ignobility of the episode by starting an unruly protest.”
Here’s a suggestion: What the students ought to have felt — and perhaps did feel, though they hardly have names for this antique sensation anymore — was shame. Though personally innocent (until the riot), they ought to have felt ashamed to be associated with an institution that (allegedly) enabled a serial child rapist to prey upon victims. Their proper mood ought to have been one of sadness and a desire to make restitution. Anger too should have played a part — but not anger at the board of trustees for firing responsible officials, but rather anger at the university administration for permitting a profound outrage. That’s the way a community with basic moral understanding behaves.
A couple of days after the riot, a larger crowd of students did hold a candlelight vigil for the victims, which is encouraging. The mood at the vigil was described as “solemn,” with subdued applause for several speakers. But the students seemed unable to sustain a serious mien for very long, and the vigil was transformed into a rally by the end with the crowd bellowing “We are Penn State!”
One student participant said of Paterno’s firing that “having that taken away from us made us feel lost.” No, they were lost long before that.
— Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist. © 2011 Creators Syndicate, Inc.