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'See No Evil, Hear No Evil': Joe Paterno, Kitty Genovese, and the Crime of Silence

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Put aside Coach Paterno and the Nittany Lions for the moment. There's a much broader issue that the Penn State scandal highlights: What would you do under the same or similar circumstances? You, not a football icon or part of the football culture in Happy Valley, look out your window late one night. You see a young woman walking slowly down the street. Suddenly a man appears behind her, grabs her, they struggle, he appears to be hitting her or stabbing her, she screams for help. Her assailant runs down the street with knife in hand. You appear to be the only person who has witnessed the attack. The young woman dies from several stab wounds to her chest. You believe that you will be able to identify the man.

From news reports you learn that the police investigators are at a dead end -- they know nothing about the killer's identity or motive. Though you are totally unconcerned about retaliation from the killer, you don't report what you saw. Are you simply indifferent to urban violence? You may be painfully aware of a moral responsibility to inform the police; indeed, the killer may do it again. But after considerable soul-searching, you just don't want to get involved. The police and the victim's family use the media to try to implore witnesses to come forward, but it's a fruitless exercise. You simply press your fingers to your ears and move on.

Maybe there's a special circle (or cell) in Dante's Inferno for the likes of you. But not in this life, however amoral and unthinkable was your conduct in failing to report what you saw. But your failure is not a crime, even though many months later you confided to others the fact that you witnessed a killing but said nothing, and they reported what you told them to the authorities.
We have personalized this scenario, of course. It's about you. All America is absorbed with the failure of Joe Paterno and members of the Penn State establishment and employees who knew about Jerry Sandusky, allegedly a sexual predator who horribly raped young boys in the football locker room and shower, but did nothing. These people were knowledgeable, even eyewitnesses, to Sandusky's atrocious crimes. The failure to report the information to University Police, State Police, or the State Department of Public Welfare may possibly have violated the law, but probably not for the eyewitness or Paterno. But nobody made the report. It's easy for anyone following the case to say -- "I would have done differently -- I would have called 911 immediately." Really? Would everyone have acted differently when it is much easier to keep a dark secret, and when no law -- only one's moral code -- exists to compel action? Even if you consulted a lawyer who advises you of your legal duties, and might counsel you to come forward with the information you observed, the lawyer would probably be required to advise you that you have no legal duty at all, as long as you do nothing affirmative to conceal or cover up what you saw, such as by lying to the police.

The failure of Penn State officials to report the rape is not unique, and the hypothetical we pose is part of the lore of urban America. Over forty years ago, on a quiet street in Queens, New York, a 28-year-old woman named Catherine Genovese -- an ordinary working girl who has been memorialized as "Kitty" Genovese -- was walking home late one night when she was attacked and stabbed 17 times to death. Thirty-eight people -- 38 people -- witnessed her death, but no witness -- not one -- called the police. Why? If the police had been called immediately, Kitty might not have died. And if Penn State officials had notified the police, other young boys might not have been raped.

Why the silence? Why did the Penn State establishment decide not to report Sandusky? Their silence can't be simply a manifestation of the darker side of urban culture; Happy Valley is apparently an idyllic community far from the streets of New York. And it is hard to think of a more horrible experience than seeing a young boy being viciously raped, certainly as searing an experience as seeing a young woman being stabbed. An eyewitness tells the coach, the coach tells the athletic director, and there the reporting ends. We did our duty, we made our report. Now we are absolved of further responsibility, legally and morally. But are we?

Crimes can be divided into three main categories: first, acts causing harm, such as murder, rape and robbery; second, acts of planning, such as conspiracy and attempts; and third, acts that help criminals avoid detection, such as hindering, obstructing, and lying. And, in the latter category, from this week's stunner from Happy Valley, maybe we should add the act of failing to report a criminal on the loose, and known to be committing atrocious crimes. And maybe such an offense is worse is it allows and may even facilitate further criminal conduct.

True, we don't want to create a nation of stool pigeons -- individuals casually going around making complaints to the police. At the same time, we can't allow the enforcement of law for serious crimes to rest on the idiosyncratic limitations of one's moral compass. Sometimes we need a law, and nothing less than a law, to ensure that people do the right thing.