THE BLOG
03/25/2013 01:23 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2013

Understanding the Steubenville Rape

The rape of a 16-year-old girl by two high school football players after a party last August in Steubenville, Ohio is tragic. Sadly, this type of event has probably occurred many more times than we know or would like to acknowledge. While the residents of Steubenville are no doubt going through a lot of soul-searching about how this could have happened in their community, they are countless other cities and towns in America that could benefit by soul-searching as well -- if for no other reason than to prevent it from happening.

There are no shortage of explanations for what took place. The use of alcohol and the ubiquity of sexual stimulation in our culture are no doubt appealing to minors who find them a quick route to adulthood. The absence of parents at home -- and the absence of parental oversight of what might take place when they are not at home -- will no doubt be seized upon as contributing factors. Science can remind us that the decision-making centers of the brain are not fully formed in teenagers. They are not adults in thinking even if their physical bodies can do everything that adults can do. Social science can note that, as Reinhold Niebuhr put it, groups are more immoral than individuals. Put a group together, and you never know what behavior might result. As to why so many of their peers observed what took place and did nothing to stop it, we have only to recall Kitty Genovese being murdered on the street near her Kew Gardens home in New York City in 1964 to understand the diffusion of responsibility that restrains action when bystanders don't do anything either.

Yet there may be something else at work as well. After the party was over, many teens sent text messages containing both graphic descriptions of the sex acts and obscene language. After the judge found the two teen boys guilty, two teenage girls, aged 15 and 16, sent Twitter threats to the girl who was raped. One of them threatened her with "homicide" because "[Y]ou ripped my family apart, and you made my cousin cry... " The other said she would beat "the s--- out of" the rape victim. Both of these teens have now been arrested.

Whatever we think caused the rape, we must also explain what happened after it. Our tendency is to find and appropriately punish illegal behavior. That has been done with the two boys (though one can argue about whether their sentences are sufficient). And Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine has said he will convene a grand jury to investigate whether anyone else should be charged -- and he has already brought charges against the two girls who tweeted threats to the victim.

Yet that is an effort to assign legal responsibility. It is necessary but not sufficient. It is possible that no other laws have been broken, but it should be obvious that the moral limits of acceptable behavior have been crossed. But is it?

From a distance, it is easy to condemn not only the rape but the behavior of observers and those who joined the viral victimization that followed. But it bears asking whether those involved actually thought they were doing anything wrong. Since the two boys bragged about it afterwards (one took and posted a photo of the victim), and expressed remorse only after their conviction, it is at least possible they saw neither the legal nor moral violations for which they were later condemned. Since more than a dozen teens sent text messages after the rape, with vivid descriptions of that night, it is also possible that they saw nothing wrong with either the rape itself or at least with their ongoing electronic conversation about it.

To the extent this is true, the problem is worse than illegal or immoral behavior. It is a problem of amorality. It is possible that the teens could identify neither the legal nor the moral boundaries that they crossed. They were, at least in this instance, morally tone deaf.

Lest we too easily chalk this up to the fact that they were minors, we should recall that they were certainly taught moral lessons at home and, no doubt for most, through religion. Yet perhaps they did not recognize that morality was involved. Somehow, they could not see any laws being broken and, for them, if their behavior was not illegal it must be OK. Between law and license, there was no middle ethical ground.

This should sound familiar, if this is part of what took place. There is no shortage of adults who defend their sexual, political, business, or sporting behavior by noting that they have done nothing illegal -- as if the question of morality is not relevant. In the university preparation of most professionals, ethics receives scant, if any, attention. Honor is a lost virtue among too many, and shame is a lost punishment for too many of those without honor.

We proudly claim that we are "a nation of laws and not men," an acknowledgment that no one is above the law, no matter how high his station or how powerful her position. But where law is the only thing standing between caring and chaos, it is too weak a defense. We neither have nor should want a society where the only test of acceptability is legality. Somehow these teens in Steubenville (and, perhaps in other Steubenvilles in America) missed the ethical education that must stand alongside the law.

While the Attorney General will in time finish his work, the task of the ethical education of our young people will never be over. We should look to ourselves, not to him, to prevent this tragedy from being repeated.