Paul Greenberg

Everything was in order at Penn State. For the longest time. All the necessary reports had been filed. Any crimes had been reported to the proper authorities on campus years ago. There was no need to go any further. Couldn't we just keep this in the family? Why involve police and courts and all that? Or anyone but the school's idolized football coach, Joe Paterno. Who could read his press releases and doubt he would do the right thing?

When it turned out he didn't, both the saintly coach and the university's hear-no-evil, see-no-evil president were dismissed. The whole, sorry chronicle of their failure to actually do anything about the evil in their midst continues to unfold. The grand jury report made particularly depressing reading.

It's all enough to bring back a comment from a respectable German official that is still tucked away in one of my yellowing files. He said it in the course of one of the war crimes trials that were still going on in Germany long after justice was supposedly done at Nuremberg.

Yes, he told the court, he had witnessed the mass murder the court was investigating. And he had reported it to his superior in Berlin. Like the officer and gentleman he was. For he was a model of Teutonic thoroughness. Grundlichkeit personified. Seeing all, reporting all, doing nothing. He would have fit in well at Penn State. To quote from his testimony:

"When I made my report back in Berlin to the chief ... physician, he was as shocked as I was. He slammed his fist on the table and yelled, 'This is a shame on Germany....' He said he would complain ... but I never learned about what happened to the complaint."

No doubt it was promptly and properly filed. It may still be around somewhere in the archives, gathering dust. The important thing, maybe the only important thing to some, is that the report was made, not what was done about it, if anything.

It's a rule of the modern, bureaucratized state: So long as all the paperwork is in order, then everything is. Alles ist in ordnung. At least on paper. Even after all these years, you can almost hear the German officer's heels click. Jawohl!

Somewhere, no doubt, Joe Paterno has a copy of all the memoranda he sent to the university about this or that outrage he duly reported, recorded and registered. And then duly, officially and thoroughly forgot. Till it turns up years later, like Banquo's ghost at a sports banquet.

Hannah Arendt, who outraged a generation by describing the most awful of evils as the product of routine minds, had a phrase for it: the banality of evil.

. .

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.