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In Defense of Mike McQueary

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mcqueary-460x307.jpgAm I the only person in America who is not surprised or outraged by how Penn State assistant Mike McQueary reacted after he witnessed Jerry Sandusky allegedly raping a 10-year-old boy in the showers at the school in the now notorious 2002 incident?

Apparently I am, judging from the vitriol hurled at McQueary. His name may become synonymous with coward, as in he "He pulled a McQueary," and certainly to Penn State fanatics he will be forever seen as a Benedict Arnold for bringing down Joe Paterno.

But, as David Brooks pointed out in a piece in the New York Times, the instinct of many people when they witness a horrible act is not to barge in and stop it, but to avert their eyes. History is replete with examples of bystanders who responded to public acts of violence by ignoring screams for help.

Along those lines, why didn't the thousands of Penn State students who rallied to protest Paterno's removal stop those who were intent on destroying a TV van?  Most of the students interviewed later said the vandalism was the work of a few rowdies and they decried the act. But, instead of chasing the vandals off, the crowd seemed to be more interested in capturing the moment on their cell-phone cameras.

I wish McQueary had used his cell to call campus police minutes after he witnessed what he saw. But, I can also see why he would have been frightened, conflicted and confused.  A kind of paralysis can set in these moments.  We like to think we can make sound moral judgments in a crisis, but often we fail.  The speed with which the moment arrives outruns our capacity to process it.

We freeze or make the wrong decisions. We acquiesce through our silence. Sometimes we even join in and help burn the village.

McQueary did make the right decision when, after a night of agonizing and after consultation with his father, he reported the incident to Paterno.

Even that took some guts. Paterno was a friend and supporter of Sandusky's. In the pecking order of the Penn State hierarchy, Sandusky, though retired, was a FOJ (Friend of Joe's). McQueary was a lowly subaltern.

He put his faith in a man he worshiped and an organization he was proud to be part of. Paterno, god though he was, did what all cowardly bureaucrats do: he passed the problem up the line. He sent McQueary to the athletic director and the VP in charge of campus police, who proceeded to engage in series of a CYA (Cover Your Ass) maneuvers, which did not address the fact they were dealing with allegations of a serious crime.

No where along the line did anyone pick up a phone and call police.

This doesn't surprise me either. The Catholic Church (which has had its own problems with covering up rape) may be the world's oldest hierarchy, but it's not the only one. Modern corporations and other large institutions use the same structure. They are pyramids where power emanates from the top down. It's in their DNA to, first, protect themselves; and, second, to protect themselves.

We like to glamorize our own lives and see ourselves as heroes who would not hesitate to fight against wrongdoing. In reality, most of us are wimps. We don't want to get in trouble. We don't want to upset the folks at the top, partly because that's human nature, partly out of fear.

Acts of heroism are, to a degree, exceptions to the Darwinian instinct for survival. Heroes get the ink (and the epic poems) for falling on their swords, we get to live.

In my experience, whistle blowers are rare. I have been involved in major investigations where we looked high and low for someone, anyone to offer inside information. Even under the promise of anonymity, even after assurances about how well we protect our sources, even though they may have been outraged over the practices under investigation, sources would slam the door shut or hang up the phone rather than talk to us.

There were exceptions, but I can count them on one hand.

If there is any breed that might be the exception to this rule, it would be journalists. They are notoriously unmanageable, strong willed and inclined to speak truth to power. But, for many years, I served as union steward in the Inquirer newsroom and I can testify that reporters were not given to heroism -- not when it came to their own organization.

By instinct, they were not inclined to collective action. And, while they were willing to grouse at the unfairness of management decisions, most had little desire to challenge them in public. (Though they were happy to have you do it for them. That's why they paid the dues.)

The staff's reluctance to engage didn't matter much when the paper was run by managers we knew and respected. We could always sit and talk out our differences. But, when tough times hit and the old management was defenestrated, fear entered the equation.

They were afraid of losing their jobs or of being sent to the journalistic equivalent of Siberia. As a rule, they would not engage.

I am not here to condemn my former colleagues or condone the acts at Penn State, but simply to point out that what happened at the school was not an aberration. It was human nature in action.

-- Tom Ferrick

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