I never thought there’d come a day when I’d agree with Andrew Sullivan, but I just saw a pig fly by outside my window, so this must be the day. He and Megan McArdle have differing views about the appropriate response when you see your boss raping a child. Here’s Sullivan’s response to someone’s suggestion that it’s perfectly reasonable to be passive if you respect your boss (or if the rapist is an uncle or father or friend):
If you see anyone – even your own father – raping a ten year old in the showers, the first thing you do is stop it yourself. You don’t even call the cops right away. You clock the rapist in the head or drag the boy out of his clutches. I’m so sick of these excuses for the inexcusable. McQueary is as depraved as all the others who stood by and did nothing.
Well . . . yes.
McArdle, however, takes a more nuanced approach. According to her, we should appreciate the McQueary was looking at someone he liked and respected, and that was obviously going to temper his response:
I have been thinking some more about the Penn State case, and why McQueary and Paterno did what they did. And I have come to the conclusion that most commentators are overlooking a rather obvious contributing factor: they liked Sandusky.
Think about what that really entails: overcoming all the shock and horror, the defensive mechanisms that make you question what you’re really seeing. The total destruction of a long relationship as soon as you name it out loud and accuse him to his face. The actual physical logistics of grabbing a naked sixty year old man, detaching him from that child, and then pounding on him for a while as a ten year old you don’t know watches. The fact that the minute you go to the police, you will have utterly ruined this man’s life: he will be jobless, friendless, and branded as the worst sort of pervert by everyone in the country–oh, and also, in protective custody so that the other inmates in jail don’t, like, kill him.
When you find out that someone you know is a pedophile, that doesn’t erase your knowledge that they’re also a human being. It does in the public mind, of course, but it’s very different when you know them.
We are evolved to live in small groups, with very deep loyalty to the other members. In most situations, this is in fact a completely laudable sentiment. But this is the dark side: it is very hard for us to betray the members of those small groups to which we belong, particularly if we have strong emotional bonds to that person. There is a scientific name for people who are not bound by these sorts of ties: sociopaths. And as I understand it, they do not, in fact, make excellent agents of justice, because they don’t care about the victims, either.
Etc. I especially like it the way McArdle, in the last paragraph I quoted, manages to suggest that turning on someone you know, if that someone is in the act of committing a vile, immoral crime, makes you a sociopath.
I’ll concede here, solely for the sake of argument, that everything McArdle says is probably correct factually, but nothing she says excuses McQueary’s conduct. While reacting instantly when you see a man you’ve respected doing something terribly wrong may be difficult, it’s still the right thing to do. You’re not a sociopath if you uphold moral standards.
Nor are you a sociopath if you overcome your fear of doing the right and necessary thing. Can’t you just see the Marines or the Army or the Navy having a new “most people” standard? “Well, most people would run away if someone was shooting at them. Heck, they wouldn’t even hide. They’d keep running until they were in the next country. So, guys, if someone shoots at you and you run away, no worries. You get a pass.” It is to laugh!
The law does have a “reasonable man” standard, which means that people are not expected to conform to entirely unreasonable behavior. McArdle is trying to craft such a standard for McQueary. Indeed, with that sociopath reference, she’s trying to say that all reasonable men, seeing a child being raped by a figure of respect would sneak away. The problem with this is that the universal revulsion towards Sandusky’s conduct, as well as the universal condemnation towards McQueary’s response, says she’s way off base about the average/reasonable person’s response. The reasonable man, confronted with the same situation, believes that the right and moral thing to do is to rip the child rapist off the child, not to sneak out and call Daddy. To analyze McQueary’s probably fears and doubts is merely to offer reasons for his behavior that don’t rise to the level of valid excuses — and that’s true even if many of us would have the same problem in the same situation.
UPDATE: David Brooks makes precisely the same point McArdle did, which boils down to “I bet you wouldn’t have behaved any better than McQueary if you were in his shoes.” He’s also just as wrong as she was. As a society, we have to believe that each of us would have behaved better. We cannot allow McQueary’s conduct to stand as the appropriate response to witnesses a man rape a young boy. Incidentally, those of you who have children know that a 10 year old boy cannot be mistaken for an older child. A ten year old is little. He’s a boy, not a man or even a proto-man.
In order to have something reasonably approximating a moral, functional society, all of us have to believe that we would be proactive in rescuing the child, and we each have to have a mental image of ourselves acting so that, should the situation arise, we have a moral and practical template to follow. That some of us, indeed, many of us, might pull a McQueary and choke when the moment comes is NO EXCUSE.