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How Did Joe Paterno and His Cronies Live with Those Images? How Do We?

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The Joe Paterno/Jerry Sandusky story is like a coffee table puzzle I can solve most of the way but never completely. Maybe you can show me the last moves.

The first move is this. Beginning in 1998, according to the Freeh inquiry released yesterday, Paterno, Penn State President Graham B. Spanier and other top officials at the university had this picture in their minds: Jerry Sandusky, their peer, performing anal and oral intercourse on children in the Penn State football program's own locker room. That picture was in their heads. I'm sure they didn't want it to be. I'm sure they tried to reason it away, force it to disappear, block it, make it go away. But that picture was in their heads.

The Freeh inquiry found that Paterno was definitely thinking about it, asking about it, trying to stay on top of it. So, indulge me here: Forget the legalities for a moment. Think about the picture.

At any given moment, Paterno and the other men at the top of the football program and the university had a picture in their heads of Jerry Sandusky down there in their own locker room doing it again to another kid, after they had decided not to give him up to the cops.

That's Step One in the puzzle. Now let's do Step Two. According to everybody's theory of this, including Freeh, Paterno and the other men decided not to stop Sandusky from raping children in their locker room because they feared that disclosure and scandal would tarnish their believed football program and university.

Believe it or not, I want to pass over that one sort of quickly, not because I fully get it, but because I want to get on to Step Three. Let's just do what the lawyers do in court sometimes and "stipulate" to Step Two. For the sake of argument, we will agree to Step Two.

We will agree that it's terrible. It's awful. Wow, people are capable of terrible things in the name of ambition and pride. We know all that. Hate it. Know it. Awful.

So here's the step I can't do. Step Three. The next one. Why wasn't this Step Three? Why didn't Paterno and Spanier and the rest of them call Sandusky in and say, "We know what you are. You're a stinking reptile. You are evil incarnate. You may have us over a barrel, you bastard, because, as you know, if this story ever goes public it will ruin the name of this football program and university forever. So as much as it sticks in our craw, we're going to let you walk.

"But don't walk. Run. Run the hell away from us, as fast and as far as you can get. You make us puke-sick every time we think of you down there in that locker room screwing another child. If we even see you in our dreams again, we will burn your ass and put you in stir for the rest of your born days."

That's the Step Three that would allow me to almost close the puzzle. Step Four, the last one, would be that they all get caught anyway.

But that's not what happened. Step Three was different. Step Three is my problem. They kept him around.

They passed him on campus -- "Hey, Jerry, what's up?" -- and bumped into him socially. They had that picture in their minds. They let him use their locker room. They could live with that picture. And live with him.

I saw Paterno's son on TV last night saying that his father would never allow children to be harmed in order to avoid bad PR for the football program. I feel for the son. I suspect he'll go to his grave never understanding his own father.

But in an odd way, I think he's also right. The whole thesis of protecting the football program seems off. It doesn't quite solve the puzzle. There is some kind of failure of dimension here.

Lots of people have programs and institutions, egos, ambitions, dreams and fortunes of which they are extremely protective. But how many of them have the picture in their heads of Jerry Sandusky down there in their own locker room week after week raping kids from poor families?

There's a greater evil here. It's way beyond PR and football. Paterno's son is right when he says that explanation is inadequate. His mistake is in not looking behind that rock to a much greater, more frightening depravity and bestiality lurking beyond.

Where is the Christian right on this, by the way? I have been watching and listening. Where are the people who want the government to stick digital probes up the vaginas of women undergoing abortions and then lecture them about their decisions? I just don't hear anything from them. The silence howls.

These were children. This has something to do with authority and the objectification of human beings. It has something to do with the kind of dehumanization that prepares the bloody ground for slaughter. I can't work that part of the puzzle, but I know it's there. How else does one live with the picture?

Step Three should have been revulsion and anger. Why wasn't there revulsion and anger? Is raping kids in the locker room pretty bad but not that bad? Is it something we can regret but live with?

Why can we live with it? That's the real question. Please forget football. Forget ambitious jock jerks. Those are not the questions. The real question is much tougher. Who are we? What are we? Do you know?

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