I wasn't going to write about Penn State, because I'm some guy in Dallas and who cares what I think? But Dallas Morning News columnist Jacquielynn Floyd has written about it in today's paper, so in my book that gives me permission.
Most of the people writing interesting things about the rape-of-boys scandal at Penn State are coming at it with some expertise, some erudition or at least a unique perspective. For example, David Brooks has a column today in The New York Times comparing the way people at Penn State averted their eyes for years to the way the world ignored the Holocaust and Rwanda. Brooks has got the bones to pull that off. Not me.
I confess I look at all crime stories from the jaundiced and probably skewed perspective of a reporter who spent too many years on the police beat. Most people find the idea of ranking atrocities against each other repulsive. Unfortunately for the reporter assigned to the police beat, that's pretty much the job.
The fact is that not all crimes are equal as news stories, because not all crimes are equally urgent to readers. Maybe the fine points of how police reporters make those distinctions would make a good topic for another rainy day.
But here is what has been bugging me the entire last week about the Jerry Sandusky-Joe Paterno matter at Penn State.
I hear people standing up for Paterno by saying he's old-school and old-school guys aren't whistle-blowers. Maybe. Maybe not. Depends on the urgency of the crime.
There's a scale. And there are hash-marks on that scale. Let's say the spectrum runs from zero to 100. Zero is: Joe Paterno's neighbor's inspection sticker on his car has expired. Does he call the cops?
At 100 on the scale, it's this: Joe Paterno's neighbor is barricaded in his house with a stack of automatic weapons, and he has already shot and killed two passersby. Does Joe Paterno call the cops?
Yes, obviously he calls the cops.
Now let's do some interim hash-marks on the scale. Imagine a scenario like this: Some guy comes to Paterno and says, "Oh my God, I just saw Jerry Sandusky murder somebody in the shower. He didn't know I could see, but I saw the whole thing. The victim is definitely dead. What should I do?"
I think that particular hash-mark goes pretty high up on the urgency scale, nipping up toward where the barricaded neighbor would go.
We must assume Paterno says something to his informant like, "Why are you telling me this instead of calling 911? Now I'm involved too. Get in the car with me, you moron, and we're headed down to the police station right now."
Imagine the guy says, "But, Coach, shouldn't we notify the hierarchy here at the university first?"
I assume Paterno says, "No, you idiot, we're not going to notify anybody until the cops say we can. This is a murder investigation now, and we're not going to do anything to screw it up."
All right, now we can do the hash-mark on what really happened. Then guy tells the coach he saw Sandusky raping a child in the university's shower room. The reaction is to handle it all in-house, notify the hierarchy, fire Sandusky with knowledge that the university will give him a replacement job and then stay quiet about it.
No 911 call. No trip to the station.
That's way far down my urgency scale from the murder scenario. Way far down the scale. The question is why.
Why is the alleged rape of children so far down the scale from murder? I'm not saying it should be in the same place. The children were raped, not killed. They were left with their lives. The hash-mark should fall somewhere down the scale toward the less urgent end.
But putting it so far down the scale that it falls with other in-house matters? Isn't that too far down the scale toward less urgency? And why is that?
I can guarantee you one thing. There are reasons. There are factors. It's wasn't an oversight. But what were the factors? Is it the nature of the crime? Is child rape that much less serious a crime than murder? That much? Or what about this: Is it the identity of the victims?
We haven't heard much about the identities of the victims, other than that they were poor kids. Was there any other shared trait that would have tended to devalue them a little on the urgency scale? We devalue people for all sorts of reasons in this society.
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Maybe that's not it. But there's something there. There are reasons. And in the months ahead, those reasons are going to come into focus.
People who do not often look closely at really bad crime tend to lump it all together in one big psychological and moral ball of horror. But when we are obligated to look more closely, we find there are patterns, distinctions, almost a logic in the way we react to crime. As there should be and must be.
But what is the pattern here? What are the factors and the distinctions? Why was the rape of boys so far down the urgency scale for Paterno, the university, the students at Penn State who have rallied to Paterno's support? Perhaps we should include all of us in the question. Why is the rape of children so much less urgent than murder?
I should have mentioned at the top that I don't have the answer. Sorry. You want answers, read David Brooks. Me, I'm just asking.