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Penn State: the Banality of Collaborative Evil

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When the Israeli government captured Nazi mass murderer Adolf Eichmann, journalist Hannah Arendt was struck by the fact that Eichmann appeared to be a nondescript accountant type. He was not highly intelligent, and he did not appear to be particularly vicious. This led Arendt to the conclusion that anyone could, under the right ideological circumstances, become evil. Evil, she said, was banal.


This was an exaggeration of the case. Eichmann was a willing executioner of Hitler's orders; he identified deeply with Hitler's anti-Semitism. He was not just a cog in the system, he was an active system-maker.

But there is truth to the notion that anyone, given the right amount of self-interest, can be sucked into collaborating with evil -- or at least looking the other way. Edmund Burke once stated that all that was necessary for the triumph of evil was for good men to do nothing. The Nazis believed ideologically in the murder of Jews, but the rest of the Western world, including the Roosevelt administration, were willing to sit idly, closing their gates to the refugees. A Holocaust is a worldwide affair.

At Penn State, the same principle applied. Former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky spent decades sexually assaulting young boys. He started a charity, The Second Mile, to recruit young boys. One victim was a houseguest with Sandusky. Sandusky fondled him, performed oral sex on him and forced the boy to perform oral sex in return. A Clinton County high school routinely called the victim out of study hall to meet Sandusky in a conference room. The wrestling coach at the high school, Joe Miller, saw Sandusky molesting the victim; Sandusky said that he was wrestling the boy. Miller found the situation odd, but said nothing. This behavior lasted from 2005 to 2009.

On March 1, 2002, graduate assistant Mike McQueary entered a locker room at the University Park Campus. The lights and the showers were on, even though it was 9:30 at night. McQueary looked into the shower and saw a young boy with his hands against the wall being subjected to anal sex by Sandusky. The graduate assistant reported to Joe Paterno, coach of the Penn State team. He was then called to meet with the Penn State Athletic Director and the Senior Vice President for Finance and Business. Paterno was nowhere to be found. Sandusky's keys to the locker room were taken away, and the incident was reported to The Second Mile. Nobody reported any of this to the police.


In 1998, Sandusky sexually molested yet another young boy. His mother reported the incident to University Police; they investigated. That investigation included a second child who was subjected to the same treatment. One of the detectives in the case actually listened to a conversation between the mother and Sandusky in which Sandusky admitted to showering with her son, refused to say he would never do it again, and said that "maybe" his genitals had touched the victim. "I understand," Sandusky said. "I was wrong. I wish I could get forgiveness. I know I won't get it from you. I wish I were dead." The detectives made Sandusky promise not to do it again. Then they dropped the case, thanks to the district attorney, who decided not to press charges.

In fall 2000, a janitor observed Sandusky performing oral sex on another young boy in the Penn State showers. The janitor was shell-shocked. He said he had "fought in the (Korean) war ...seen people with their guts blowed out, arms dismembered ... I just witnessed something in there I'll never forget." He simply reported it to his supervisor and let it go at that. The supervisor told him where he could report it if he wanted to; the janitor never did so, and neither did the supervisor.

So many people knew about the Sandusky molestations, all the way from the president of the university down to the janitors. Yet for the better part of 20 years, nobody said a word to the police -- and even the police who knew about it let it go.

How does that happen? It happens only if Penn State football is an ideology, the be-all-end-all. Everyone involved in the cover-up had an incentive to keep Penn State football strong. They wanted to keep their jobs. They saw no personal benefit in reporting Sandusky, but they feared retaliation if they did so. And so they did nothing.


The truly sickening part of the Penn State story isn't Jerry Sandusky. We expect truly evil people to be truly evil. The sickening part is the involvement of so many otherwise decent people. Evil isn't banal, but allowing evil to occur certainly is.

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