These things should be simple: 1. When, as an adult, you come come across another adult raping a small child, you should a) do everything in your power to rescue that child from the rapist, b) call the police the moment it is practicable.
2. If your adult son calls you to tell you that he just saw an adult raping a child, but then left that child with the rapist, and then asks you what he should do, you should a) tell him to call the police immediately, b) call the police yourself, c) at the appropriate time ask your adult son why the fuck he did not try to save that kid.
3. If your underling comes to you to report that he saw another man, also your underling, raping a small child, but then left that small child with the rapist, you should a) call the police immediately, b) alert your own superiors, c) immediately suspend the alleged rapist underling from his job responsibilities, d) at the appropriate time ask that first underling why the fuck he did not try to save that kid.
4. When, as the officials of an organization, you are approached by an underling who tells you that one of his people saw another of his people raping a small child at the organization, on organization property, you should a) call the police immediately, b) immediately suspend the alleged rapist from his job responsibilities if the immediate supervisor has not already done so, c) when called to a grand jury to testify on the matter, avoid perjuring yourself. At no time should you decide that the best way to handle the situation is to tell the alleged rapist not to bring children onto organization property anymore.
You know, there’s a part of me who looks at the actions of each of non-raping grown men in the “Pennsylvania State University small-child-allegedly-being-raped-by-a-grown-man-who-is-part-of-the-football-hierarchy” scandal and can understand why those men could rationalize a) not immediately acting in the interests of a child being raped, b) not immediately going to the police, c) doing only the minimum legal requirements, d) acting to keep from exposing their organization to a scandal. But here’s the thing: that part of me? That part of me is a coward. And so by their actions – and by their inactions – were these men.
At least one sports columnist has made the point that Joe Paterno, the 40-plus year coach of Penn State, who was fired by the university’s board of trustees, should be remembered for all the good things he has stood for, even as this scandal, which brought his downfall, is now part of his legacy as well. I suspect that in time, even this horrible event will fade, and Paterno’s legacy will rise above the tarnishment, especially because it can and will be argued that Paterno did all that was legally required of him, expressed regret and horror, and was not the man who was, after all, performing the acts.
Here’s what I think about that, right now. I’m a science fiction writer, and one of the great stories of science fiction is The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, by Ursula K. Le Guin. The story posits a utopian city, where everything is beautiful, with one catch: In order for all this comfort and beauty to exist, one child must be kept in filth and misery. Every citizen of Omelas, when they come of age, is told about that one blameless child being put through hell. And they have a choice: Accept that is the price for their perfect lives in Omelas, or walk away from that paradise, into uncertainty and possibly chaos.
At Penn State, a man found a blameless child being put through hell. Other grown men learned of it. Each of them had to make their choice, and decide, fundamentally, whether the continuation of their utopia – or at least the illusion of their utopia – was worth the suffering of that one child. Through their actions, and their inactions, we know the choice they made.
Award-winning science fiction writer John Scalzi writes the Whatever blog. He is donating his fee for this column to a Monterey County children’s charity.