Judging McQueary: Child Rape Bystander Ethics

You have no excuses, Kal-El. But the rest...

“It was cowardly for a 6′4″ graduate assistant to witness the rape of a child by an older man and not only take no action to stop it but also not even call the police,” writes David French in the National Review.

He is, of course, referring to Mike McQueary, then a 28-year-old graduate student assistant coach for Joe Paterno at Penn State. Others have declared that it was an “absolute moral imperative” that McQueary physically intervene to stop the sexual assault.

It is interesting that the absolute moral imperative is nonetheless linked to qualifiers. French references McQueary’s size and the fact that the alleged assailant, Jerry Sandusky, is older. Some critics have focused on his gender. Still others, making the argument that McQueary failed to intervene because he didn’t take a child rape seriously enough, have suggested that he would have acted differently had Sandusky been beating, rather than raping the child. Of all the ethical debates surrounding the Penn State scandal, the question of how much scorn should be heaped on McQueary for not acting immediately to stop the rape in progress has been the most fascinating, and to my mind, the most disingenuous. It appears that every commentator, male or female, young or old, fat or fit, is convinced that would have charged in and battled the 57-year-old former wide-receiver, pummeling him into wet submission while the child escaped. Maybe. Studies and anecdotal evidence indicate that in fact, most people wouldn’t physically intervene. Perhaps sportswriters and op-ed writers are made of sterner stuff that the rest of the public.

Yes, that must be it.

None of this is to suggest that physically stopping a child rape in progress isn’t the right thing to do; it is. For his part, McQueary reputedly didn’t take any action to stop the assault,* which in order of effectiveness would be…

1. Physically stopping Sandusky
2. Shouting at him to stop
3. Going for help
4. Calling 911 immediately.

If he indeed he did none of these things, it can’t be condoned or forgiven; it can be explained: he panicked. My immediate interest, however, is exploring the theory that McQueary was absolutely obligated to physically intervene to stop the crime in progress.

If he was, then there needs to be a law. That is what laws define: moral imperatives according to the culture and society. Is that a standard we want to mandate for all citizens—that any citizen seeing a child—that is, an individual below the age of consent—being sexually violated by an adult must, under pain of indictment, trial and imprisonment, physically interrupt the act to the extent of physical violence?

Any adult? I don’t think so, and I don’t think all those “knights of the keyboard” (Ted Williams’ term, not mine) who claim that they would have rushed into the shower fists flailing think so either. So let us see if we can determine when it is an absolute moral imperative to resort to violence in defense of a child, shall we?

Here is a hierarchy of potential rescuer categories, ranked by the degree to which they should be expected to do the right thing and intervene. If it is an absolute moral imperative to do so, then all 39 are equally blameworthy if they do something instead, like call 911:

1. Superman, or another super-hero
2.  Chuck Norris, John Wayne, Jackie Chan, or equivalent male human hero
3.  Lara Croft, Emma Peel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or equivalent female human hero.
4.  Navy Seals or other special combat military personnel.
5. Large, muscular, active male athletes in their prime (Michael Vick)
6. Large, muscular, active female athletes in their prime (See photo)

7. Active male athletes in their prime of average build and height. (Tiger Woods)
8. Active female athletes in their prime of average build and height.
9. Young off-duty police officers, fire fighters and retired military personnel, male.
10.Young off-duty police officers, fire fighters and retired military personnel, female.
11. Middle-aged off-duty police officers, fire fighters and retired military personnel, female.
12. Middle-aged, out of shape off-duty police officers, fire fighters and retired military personnel, male.
13. Large, fit, inactive, former or non-competing male athletes (Mike McQueary)
14 . Large , fit, inactive, former or non-competing female athletes
15.  18-35-year-old fit male of normal build.
16.  35-45 -year-old fit male of normal build
17.  18-35-year-old fit female of normal build.
18.  18-35-year-old fit male of normal build.
19.  35-45 -year-old fit male of normal build
20.  45-60 -year-old fit male of normal build
21.  35-45-year-old fit female of normal build.
22.  60-75 -year-old fit male of normal build
23. A fat, weak,18-35-year-old male
24.  A 45-60 -year-old fit female of normal build
25.  A fat, weak,35-45-year-old male
26. A fat, weak, 45-60 -year-old male
27. A fat, weak,18-35-year-old female
28. A man 5’5” or less of normal build
29.  A fat, weak,35-45-year-old female
30. A fat, weak, 45-60 -year-old female
31. A slight woman of 5’2” or less
32. Any male over 75
33. Any woman over 75
34. A morbidly obese man or woman
35. Any woman over 75
36. Vern Troyer (right)
37. Paris Hilton, or equivilent.
38. Steven Hawking, or equivilent.
39. Barack Obama

There are other variations, of course: individuals who have a phobia of showers, perhaps. What would be the obligation of Jerry Sandusky’s mother, to take another example? The same as anyone else in her category (37), higher because of the unlikelihood that he would fight her, or lower, because it is unfair to expect a mother to attack her own son?
These will do, however, to look at the problem. We will all agree, can’t we, that 1, the super-heroes, do have an absolute moral obligation. They are guaranteed of success, they have nothing to fear, and rescuing people is their job. We can also agree, can we not, that 13-38 would be acting with exemplary ethics, at very least, to try to stop the attack….but there are limits. The President would be violating his duty to do so; he cannot risk his welfare for one individual, even a child (especially with Joe Biden as Vice-President).  [Interesting thought exercise: which presidents, while in office, would have come to the rescue of the boy anyway? Teddy is obvious. Jackson, Washington…who else? Reagan? Ike? George Bush the Elder? Bill?]

If we accept that of Obama, who else can consider personal consequences without deserving our condemnation? Someone with an incipient heart condition? A pacifist? Would Gandhi (probably around 20)be obligated to fight Sandusky? What if someone at 15 or more has a large family of which he or she is the sole support? Can he or she consider that, even if it makes them hesitate, or opt to call the police instead (which still allows the rape to continue, perhaps to completion)?

Most Americans, even those who grow up large and athletic, are conditioned to avoid physical violence. Does that matter in deciding “absolute moral obligation”? If McQueary has never had a physical altercation in his life, can he be excused from avoiding one when a child is being raped? Does avoiding it make him a coward? Why? His gender? His age? His weight? His fat to muscle index? I am not even sure that 5-8 aren’t ranked unfairly high. Why do we assume that athletes are comfortable with physical violence off the playing fields and arenas?

I think the list makes clear that we do not, would not and should not hold all witnesses of a child rape equally deficient ethically for failing to intervene.


*UPDATE: McQueary now suggests that he in fact did stop Sandusky.Details are still lacking.

19 thoughts on “Judging McQueary: Child Rape Bystander Ethics

  1. When people talk about this, do they realize that there was a 10 year old kid there? How do you expect two adult men to duke it out in a slippery shower without the kid getting further injured? Would anybody be cheering if he charged in, they fell during the struggle, and killed the boy?

    I am pretty sure McQueary panicked. Who wouldn’t? You are a relative nobody who witnesses a giant of your field doing something like that. You have to wonder what will happen to you and if anyone will even believe you. I think the death threats and the report that the judge who let Sandusky out with no money down and no monitoring (a judge who volunteers at Saturday’s charity) demonstrate why he would have panicked.

  2. Another thing to consider is that It’s not just a question of risk, but also of effectiveness. Think of the instructions airlines give you about putting on an oxygen mask: If you’re traveling with children, first put on your own mask, then help your children with theirs. That’s because if you bravely put your children before yourself, you might pass out from oxygen starvation, and then you’re not going to help anyone.

    So, yes, if you’re near the top of the list, not only do you face little risk, but you probably have what it takes to intervene effectively. On the other hand, if someone around position 30 tries to intervene and gets beaten to death by a pedophile who’s desperate not to get caught…that’s not exactly helping the victim, is it? Better to call 911 and be sure that help will arrive.

    On another note, military experts have studied why some soldiers stay safely hidden in foxholes and others expose themselves in order to shoot at the enemy, and one of the things that makes a difference is the effectiveness of the soldier’s weapons. The more damage he can do to the enemy by exposing himself, the more he is likely to do so. Bravery follows efficacy.

    I imagine a similar principle applies to this situation. For example, add the phrase “with a gun” to each of your rescuer categories, and I’ll bet a lot more of them would be willing to try.

  3. I learned long time ago from my father, a retired Marine with 34 years in service and who fought in Korea And Vietnam, that the person who talks the most about kicking ass and being heroic is most likely the one to either panic or freeze. No one can predict how they are going to act in such a situation with 100 % accuracy.

  4. I was interested in this blog post and this topic until the strange mention of Barack Obama at the bottom of the list. What’s that supposed to mean? Some sort of snide political commentary? Not the place for that. I’ll look elsewhere for thoughtful writing on this topic.

    • Well, Ginny, if you bothered to READ the post before leaping to conclusions, it would have been clear why the president was at the end of the list, and there was nothing political about it. The point, which is germane to the article, is that expectations do differ according to a wide range of factors. I don’t know what good thoughtful writing will do you if you don’t bother to read it.

    • Gah, if us Americans are becoming so intellectually lazy that we can’t even be asked to finish reading an article before we pass judgement on it, than I fear for the future, regardless of whether the country becomes Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street.

      But, to do you a favor you don’t deserve, I’ll clarify even further and say that it has to do with the fact that the President arguably would be violating his duties by putting himself at risk just to help one person.

      • I may have to hire you to translate posts for the reading, logic and fairness impaired. You’re good at it. Do you know, it never occurred to me that anyone would find Obama at the end of the list to be political in any way. “Blazing Saddles”: “You know…morons.”

  5. My hero Teddy IS obvious. And he wasn’t in the best health most of his life.

    But the Colonel wasn’t there. While I was in the military, I trained with men that were gung-ho, motivated, dedicated and who seemed fearless. One, even self professed himself an expert on ground combat military tactics. They were in my opinion loud and obnoxious. I was quiet and reserved. Looking back I was very respectful and somewhat timid around military authority. Anyway, while in action I saw these guys freeze, some vomited, some lost control of other bodily functions, and some even cried. It was during these events that my adrenalin actually got going. I wasn’t great at tactics and wasn’t by any means a hero. I just performed the way I was trained and expected to. These gung-ho guys gave me a different fear I can’t truely explain. It surprised me to see these guys become like children in an instant.

    In another instance I witnessed guys doing the right thing. They stood up to their superiors and violated orders. Everyone knew it was the right and ethical thing to do. But authority saw it as a lack of integrity and subordination. Some of them became victims of the system. The command looked for ways to tarnish their record and make it difficult for them. When I saw what was going on, I folded. I did some things that were against my morals and ethics. They weren’t criminal acts, but I despised the orders and my actions. I wish I had a second chance at these situations. I feel I was a coward to my own ideals. I don’t know what the consequences would have been, but I did fear what they could have been.

    So with Mr. McQueary, I sympathize. He screwed up. What he didn’t do was terrible. If he would have done something, his peers might have recognized what he did was right or they could have ostracized him for exposing legends for what they really were. Sandusky as a pedaphile. Paterno and the others as company men, cowards who value money and reputation over ethics and other people’s welfare. It might look simple, but it was complicated. And what makes me really wonder is the fact that a judge sets bail on this criminal at a measly $100,000.00. Mike failed in his opportunity to be a hero, but he is only human.

    • Ooh, Ooh. To add (via hyperbole and hearkening to Godwin’s Law – look that up): Germans during World War II, Wermacht soldiers unrelated to those involved with the Holocaust, etc.

      Did they have an ethical obligation to physically intervene to the clear abuse they saw? (There are volumes of nuance and semi-relevant issues, here, but I think the overall point can be deciphered without talking about all of that)

  6. Thanks Jack for this post. A nifty way indeed to impress upon us the reasons why no federal or state law in this country impose an absolute duty to rescue. (Interestingly, it seems Brazil, et. al, South American countries, do criminalize the failure to intervene when witnessing criminal acts. If anyone has more information on how well those laws actually work it would be interesting to know). But I am interested to evaluate this not only in terms of what obligations McQueary did or did not have, but also to consider what obligations society has in responding to the various actors in this tragedy. McQueary’s role is so ambiguous, yet the public scorn heaped upon him may in the end prove terribly unjust. The Governor’s self-serving pronouncement constituted in my opinion the low-point, so far, but there will be surely be plenty more opportunities for others to prove their obtuseness. And so I wonder if there yet exists within us a residue of primal blood-lust that overwhelms we who are otherwise people of goodwill and common-sense? And if this is so, under what conditions does the social contract allow this primal scream to coalesce, and upon what objects and in what form is the fury legitimated? One can argue that outlandish commentaries in the media are preferable to mob justice. We do seem (in the western societies at least) to have progressed, using that term lightly, in that regard. To me, though, this feels like qualified progress when one actor in this tragedy can so easily be demonized by so many for so few good reasons. Is it the scapegoat process at play, on a massive scale? Granted, few things provoke as deep an emotion as do allegations of prolonged, and perhaps institutionally enabled, child sexual abuse. But isn’t it true that given the importance of the allegations, there needs to be a proportionately serious social and cultural barrier that abrogates the desire to unleash our primal selves?

  7. This was one of the stupidest articles I read in my life! The fact that the author would go to such idiotic lengths to suggest that McQueary wasn’t breaking a law or code of ethics or whatever. Ok! We get that! Basic argument: if you’re physically able to stop an assailant (whether it’s sexual or physical), do it! If not, at least call the goddamn cops! He panicked? Ok. Whatever. I guess it can happen to anyone unless they’ve been in that situation. But, instead of maturely stating an argument and backing it up, this stupid author had to act like some 12 year old and bring Super-man, body builders, and even Barack Obama into this! FYI, you DON’T have to be pumped up to CALL FOR HELP!

    And this dumbass post just invalidates what happened to the poor kid and even gives gross mixed messages about what someone SHOULD do if they ever witness such a scene. Should everyone judge McQueary so harshly? Maybe not. But is writing a dumb post on how Super-man and body-builders are pretty much the ONLY people who could stop some 57 year old man from raping a kid the right thing to do?! NO!

    I SERIOUSLY doubt you have to be built like a brick wall to physically stop someone from committing a crime! Of course, one’s OWN safety comes first, but if you’re reasonably in shape and the person not 5 times bigger than you, then there’s no reason why one wouldn’t be ABLE to stop them. But calling for help should be the first and safest way to go.

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