Joseph Edward bought me some time with this superb Comment of the Day, because I am writing a post on the same topic. Mike McQueary’s conduct in the locker room, when he allegedly witnesses Jerry Sandusky raping a boy, has generated some of the most self-righteous and, I may say, annoying comments I’ve encountered on Ethics Alarms, characterizing my commentary (in “Mike McQueary and Me”) on why McQueary might have acted as he did with excusing his conduct. Most of these, I’m relatively certain, are motivated by those who want to shift responsibility for the Penn State debacle away from Joe Paterno.
One particularly persistent and vociferous commenter has decreed that it was an “absolute moral obligation” for McQueary to physically intervene to stop the assault he witnessed. Joseph touches on that dubious contention; I’ll have more to say about it soon. Meanwhile, here is his Comment of the Day, on “Mike McQueary and Me”:
“Mike McQueary is neither a Good nor Bad Samaritan, but one who delayed his response. Lawyers have recognized for years nuances in how people respond when witnessing crimes against others, and delayed or passive responding is more common than heroic intervention. Intervening factors, such as shock, panic, and misplaced loyalty, among other things, do effect people’s decision-making abilities in the moment.
“McQueary seems to have made a measured decision, after a day’s reflection and consultation with others, (at least his father, and, though we do not know for certain, possibly an attorney) and at that point reported the matter in the way state law and university policy prescribed. That he had moral obligations to do more presumes that he would immediately and without hesitation have either …
1. …physically intervened to stop the assault (no law in this country creates such a clearly defined duty), or
2. …would have reported his witness of events to the police. (Which police department by the way? The University police, who had already shut down the 1998 investigation of Sandusky? Who had investigational jurisdiction over a crime on campus property? Did McQueary? Was he thinking about potential relationships Sandusky, Paterno, and others may have had, real or perceived, with law enforcement officials? Was he thinking about the unsolved disappearance 6 years prior of the first DA who tried to bring a criminal abuse claim against Sandusky? We don’t know, and really, none of us should presume we do.)
“What is so interesting about the responses in the media and blogosphere, is that all of us like think we would act heroically. Perhaps everyone would do so, without hesitation. What a wonderful world that would be. But I wonder, though, how many of us actually would. It is easy to think so strongly of oneself from the comfort of one’s couch, with the luxury of reflecting without experiencing the actual moment of crisis. In reality, the decision making process in our brains and spirits, if you believe in that aspect of personality, is much messier.
“Instances of bystanders allowing murders and gang rapes are well documented in American society in recent decades. The hesitation to act has precedent in society, and is well represented in the sometimes contradictory jumble of statutory and case law promoting duty to report/rescue obligations. So, is it possible that there are two levels of response occurring here-the response of Mr McQueary and his superiors at Penn State, (in which everyone seems agrees the ball was dropped-when, by whom, and the degree of moral and legal culpability, remains to be seen), and the response of the crowd, represented by the many media and blog commentaries, as well as the water-cooler variety comments at workplaces and homes. I am interested in why such a critical mass of people believe they would act heroically in a given circumstance, when there is precious little evidence to support this idea save for how mightily one thinks of oneself. Or, is it that the effect of the crowd is such that we simply excuse ourselves in the moment, and by berating the apparent weakness in another, feel that much more secure in our own rather fantastical notions that we would fulfill the ideal norm without fail.
“Group think works in many ways-it was apparently present in the failure to act on the part of officials at Penn St, and it seems to me quite loudly present in what I find to be painful and disingenuous self-assertions of the “crowd” in the media, and on the blogs.”