Are Voters So Different From the Joe Paterno Apologists?

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Some Penn State students have rallied around their fired coach, while the U.S. public routinely supports leaders who fail to prevent atrocities

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Reflecting on the Penn State child molestation scandal, the cowardice of the man who didn't intervene when he witnessed one of the the rapes, the inadequate response of Joe Paterno, and the students who rowdily protested Paterno's firing, Joe Carter wrote this at First Things: "I tell myself that it must be an anomalous event, for I can't bear the idea that it may be symptomatic of our larger culture."

Depressed as I am by the conclusion that America as a whole isn't so different from Penn State, I can't shake it. I don't mean that we condone child molestation, or feel anything but outrage at child abusers. But are America's elected leaders, like Joe Paterno, largely decent men who do too little when atrocities are committed beneath them and at worst become complicit? Are Americans, like the students who protested at Penn State, more viscerally upset at the idea of holding their favorite leaders accountable than by terrible abuses themselves?

I think so.

No two atrocities are exactly alike, but the Penn State abuse case is particularly horrifying because the 8 victims were children, the most helpless members of our society. That single-digit number of victims is and ought to be shocking. To put it into perspective, however, 750 children in the Texas juvenile detention system alleged sexual abuse by staff in the six-year period ending in 2007, a figure that includes the inevitable false accusations, but that most likely understates the total number of actual abuse victims, according to most experts, because a lot of kids in confinement understandably fear for their safety too much to admit being abused.

Let's suppose, however, that the actual number of abuse cases is radically lower, subtract the cases allegedly perpetrated by other inmates, and focus only on those committed by government employees. Using an excessively conservative estimate, 100 actual instances of sexual abuse by staff, let's compare it to the total number of staff members jailed for abuse in that period.

Zero.

"Staff covered for each other, grievance processes were sabotaged and evidence was frequently destroyed," David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow wrote in the New York Review of Books. "Officials in Austin ignored what they heard, and in the very rare instances when staff were fired and their cases referred to local prosecutors, those prosecutors usually refused to act."

Although Gov. Rick Perry's administration "knew as early as June 2005 that two administrators at a Texas Youth Commission facility were not being prosecuted on allegations of sexually abusing youths in their custody," according to the Houston Chronicle, the sexual abuse problem wore on for years.

Mother Jones offers this summary:

Allegations of systematic mistreatment at TYC facilities first came to the Governor's desk in 2001, when then-Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas) forwarded along a complaint that his office had received. That was six years before media coverage of the conditions in juvenile detention centers launched a public scandal. And critics of Perry, who is now a frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination, point out that he received tens of thousands of dollars from lobbyists and executives for a firm tied to some of the worst abuses. Far from the picture initially painted by Perry, of a shocking scandal that was dealt with swiftly and emphatically, his administration had sat on the concerns for years.

The TYC's own numbers tell the tale. The commission officially reported 535 cases of abuse at its facilities in 2002, more than double the total from just four years earlier. Likewise, the number of residents diagnosed with mental illnesses skyrocketed during that same period, from 27 percent in 1995 to nearly half in 2002. And despite his office's initial denials, top Perry staffers had been formally briefed on abuses at juvenile justice facilities as early as 2005. In 2006, President Bush's Department of Justice even initiated a probe of the TYC conditions, but declined to intervene because it was not able to prove that any victims sustained "bodily injury."

In the Penn State case, most consider it self-evident that the trustees did the right thing by getting rid of the university's president, its athletic director, and its football coach, not because they molested kids themselves, but because they failed to respond adequately or covered up the problem. The administration of Rick Perry behaved better in some ways, worse in others. Certainly its inability to deal with the abuse problem in Texas resulted in more total kids being sexually abused. But the point isn't to make Perry out to be a monster, or even an anomaly, for nationally, "Fewer than half of the corrections officials whose sexual abuse of juveniles is confirmed are referred for prosecution, and almost none are seriously punished." Officials at juvenile prisons bear most direct responsibility for this shocking fact. State officials are next in line.

But voters are to blame too.

What Perry's case shows is that a man can preside over a state whose juvenile justice system routinely results in child rape and other sexual abuse, and that even a public scandal about inadequate oversight won't stop him from being reelected. Furthermore, when he decides to run for president, this sort of failure won't even be a minor campaign issue, never mind it costing him votes.

Child rape in juvenile prisons just isn't a problem that stirs American voters, not like tax increases or cuts to Medicare or ballot initiatives about gay marriage or card-check unionizing. Even less do Americans want to confront the rape epidemic going on in adult prisons. When it's the Catholic Church or Jerry Sandusky abusing people, everyone is rightly outraged not only at the perpetrators, but at the people in charge, and even the low-level folks who knew about the problem but did nothing to stop it. Prison rape of juveniles and adults has been a known problem for decades. Bureaucrats accept it as inevitable, elected leaders ignore the kids and sometimes even joke about the adults getting what they deserve, and voters exact no price.

That is why the problem continues.

There are American atrocities besides child sexual abuse. During the Bush years, there was the sadistic treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib, the abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and a few instances where detainees were blindfolded, strapped to a board, gagged, and subjected to water being forced into their noses and sinuses until their lungs filled, terrifying them with the thought that they were drowning. Even those abuses that resulted in jail time for the perpetrators never ended in punishment or even censure for folks atop the chain of command.

The most prominent legal minds to advocate forcibly filling detainees' lungs with water are members in good standing of the conservative movement, including John Yoo, who once argued that if the president were trying to interrogate a detainee, he might be legally able to crush the testicles of the man's child to get him talking. President Obama, who affirms that torture was perpetrated during the Bush years, has failed to fulfill his obligation under international law to investigate and prosecute those responsible, preferring to focus on his domestic agenda.

His administration's drone strikes are killing some unknown number of innocent people -- the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London reports 160 children dead, a figure the U.S. government disputes. Without even knowing how bad the "collateral damage" actually is, most Americans support the drone campaign, persuaded that it will decrease the chances of a terrorist attack by some unknown percentage. The possibility of reducing future terrorist attacks is enough for many to justify the certainty that faraway innocents, including children, will be killed.

I am as horrified as anyone that Penn State's leaders shamefully allowed bureaucratic inertia, concern for their careers, misguided senses of responsibility toward their football program, cowardice, or negligence stop them from protecting children who suffered terrible abuse due to their inadequate action. But though the specifics of any situation are unique, I do not think it is anomalous, in our country, to close our eyes and ears to the reality of atrocities and our complicity in them, as the long-running abuse of juveniles in state custody and dead foreign children show; it is exceedingly rare to hold folks at the top responsible for atrocities committed on their watch, even when some of their actions are illegal and play a direct role in bringing the atrocities about; and partisans of political candidates on the right and left act as determined apologists for the bad behavior of their champions in a way not unlike the Penn State students who rallied behind Paterno.

It is easy, after all, to see the humanity in our leaders; the good things they've done; the ways in which we identify with them; and the trust we've invested in them, whether actively at the ballot box, or passively as we think of them as representing us to the nation or world. And a polity is always averse to fully confronting the worst excesses perpetrated by those who represent it. I share the distaste most people have for Penn State students who are blind to Paterno's failings and disposed to ignore the tragedy's victims; as Americans, however, many of us vote for leaders whose negligence has caused far more damage and ignore victims far more numerous.

Image credit: Reuters


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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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