Defenders of McQueary and the broader Penn State protection racket argue that “nobody knows” what he would do in similar circumstances. In a New York Times piece headlined “Let’s All Feel Superior,” David Brooks turned in an eerily perfect parody of a David Brooks column and pointed out, with much reference to Kitty Genovese et al., how “studies show” that in extreme circumstances the human brain is prone to lapse into “normalcy bias.” To be sure, many of the Internet toughs bragging that they’d have punched Sandusky’s lights out would have done no such thing. As my e-mail correspondents always put it whenever such questions arise: “Yeah, right, Steyn. Like you’d be taking a bullet. We all know you’d be wetting your little girly panties,” etc.
For the sake of argument, let us so stipulate. Nevertheless, as the Canadian blogger Kathy Shaidle wrote some years ago: “When we say ‘we don’t know what we’d do under the same circumstances,’ we make cowardice the default position.”
I quote that line in my current book, in a section on the “no man’s land” of contemporary culture. It contrasts the behavior of the men on the Titanic who (notwithstanding James Cameron’s wretched movie) went down with the ship and those of the École Polytechnique in Montreal decades later who, ordered to leave the classroom by a lone gunman, meekly did as they were told and stood passively in the corridor as he shot all the women. Even if I’m wetting my panties, it’s better to have the social norm of the Titanic and fail to live up to it than to have the social norm of the Polytechnique and sink with it.
That’s the issue at the heart of Penn State’s institutional wickedness and its many deluded defenders. In my book, I also quote the writer George Jonas back when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were revealed to be burning down the barns of Quebec separatists: With his characteristic insouciance, the prime minister Pierre Trudeau responded that, if people were so bothered by illegal barn burning by the Mounties, perhaps he would make it legal. Jonas pointed out that burning barns isn’t wrong because it’s illegal, it’s illegal because it’s wrong. A society that no longer understands that distinction is in deep trouble. To argue that a man witnessing child sex in progress has no responsibility other than to comply with procedures and report it to a colleague further up the chain of command represents a near-suicidal loss of that distinction.
A land of hyper-legalisms is not the same as a land of law. I’ve written recently about the insane proliferation of signage on America’s highways — the “Stop” sign, the “Stop Sign Ahead” sign, the red light, the sign before the red light instructing you that when the light is red you should stop here, accompanied by a smaller sign underneath with an arrow pointing to the precise point where “here” is . . . One assumes this expensive clutter is there to protect against potential liability issues. It certainly doesn’t do anything for American road safety, which is the worst in the developed world. We have three times the automobile fatality rate of the Netherlands, and at 62 in the global rankings we’re just ahead of Tajikistan and Papua New Guinea.
But that’s the least of it: When people get used to complying with micro-regulation, it’s but a small step to confusing regulatory compliance with the right thing to do — and then arguing that, in the absence of regulatory guidelines, there is no “right thing to do.”
In a hyper-legalistic culture, Penn State’s collaborators may have the law on their side. But there is no moral-liability waiver. You could hardly ask for a more poignant emblem of the hollow braggadocio of the West at twilight than the big, beefy, bulked-up shoulder pads and helmets of Penn State football, and the small stunted figures inside.
And Jeff Jacoby had this to say in his article about American optimism:
Reno isn't the only Commentary contributor who points to America's ability to assimilate outsiders as a singular advantage in the present, and an ongoing reason for optimism about the future. Yes, remarks Harvard's Joseph Nye, China can draw on a talent pool of 1.3 billion people, "but the United States can draw on a talent pool of 7 billion." From every corner of the globe, dreamers, strivers, and self-starters have been willing to uproot themselves for the chance to make a better life in this astonishing land of opportunity.
"Optimism, by nearly all accounts, has been an integral part of our national DNA," writes James Ceaser, a scholar of American politics at the University of Virginia. The crises of the moment -- a limping economy, soaring government debt, a stifling bureaucracy -- are undoubtedly serious. But they are far from insoluble, and they certainly aren't grounds for terminal pessimism.
The nation that transformed an undeveloped wilderness into history's freest, most prosperous superpower; that overcame the cancer of slavery; that trounced totalitarianism; that still inspires the persecuted and downtrodden -- that nation isn't about to fade to gray. We have licked worse problems than those we face now.
Optimistic or pessimistic about America's future? The Gipper had it right: Our best days are yet to come. This nation has had a remarkable run, but you ain't seen nothin' yet.