The Corner

Penn State and Absolute Moral Imperatives


There are moral absolutes in life, and one of them is this: If a man comes across a child rape in process, he should do whatever he can to stop the rape and protect the child. There should be no reasonable debate about this, and the relevant question is not whether that standard is correct but whether we have the individual courage to meet that standard.

Those two sentences should be among the least controversial ever written in the pages of NRO. Indeed, there should be no need to even write them, but in the aftermath of my Friday posting about cowardice at Penn State, I was surprised at the number of individuals — both in the comments and via e-mail — who admonished me for my rush to judgment of the young graduate assistant who failed to stop Sandusky and failed even to call the police. “His career was at risk” some said. Others noted that Sandusky was likely a “father figure” to the young coach. Still others said that telling Joe Paterno many hours later was “enough.” But what does all that say about the inherent selfishness of the rationalizer? How important is your career? How much will you allow perceived authority to intimidate you? Do you respond to a crisis by asking what is “enough,” or what is right?

Friday night I had dinner with a fellow Iraq vet, a guy who served as a critical-care doctor at Balad Air Base, where he treated soldiers with horrific wounds. He noted how people in crisis, particularly people facing crises they’ve never experienced, almost always go through a moment of denial — a “this can’t really be happening” moment where they process the events around them and make, sometimes in less than a second, that most basic human choice: Fight or flight. I saw the same thing in my time downrange. I saw that moment of shock — and went through it myself — when events accelerate beyond experience or reason. We can try to prepare ourselves and we can imagine how we’d react, but you never know with metaphysical certainty until you’re there, until the moment strikes, what you will do. In fact it is that very uncertainty that makes the moral declaration all the more important, a vital anchor as the waves of fear, confusion, and doubt wash over you.

And believe me, in those times moral expectations do matter. There are soldiers who have stood and fought when every single cell in their body was screaming for them to run because they would rather die than abandon their brothers. The moral expectation was the difference between courage and cowardice, between victory and defeat. In fact, our nation’s very existence depends on the willingness of brave men and women to toe that moral line and utterly abandon self-interest in the face of mortal danger. And while we understand why some tiny minority of soldiers have run, we don’t condone it. Cowardice is still cowardice even if the conditions are extreme.

It is a sad irony that a graduate student who was part of the fake military culture that pervades football could not summon even a fraction of the warrior ethos when confronted not with mortal danger but danger to his career and reputation. If you read the grand jury report and honestly take from it that you would have responded the same way when confronted with the reality of child rape, you shouldn’t question the moral imperative of intervention. Instead, question yourself. 

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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