THE BLOG
11/14/2011 02:07 pm ET Updated Jan 14, 2012

What Would You Do?

A few days ago I was watching a televised sports talk roundtable discussion in which the participants debated the moral culpability of Mike McQueary, the former Penn State quarterback, who as a graduate assistant in 2002, witnessed Jerry Sandusky rape a 10-year-old child. McQueary, it seems, did not use his impressive physical strength and six foot 5 inch frame to pull Sandusky off the child. Instead, he left the building -- that is to say, he left the child in the company of a molester -- and went home and called his father. The next day he told Joe Paterno that he saw something "inappropriate". As far as we know he did not follow up.

The debate on the sports talk show turned on the question of whether more should have been expected of McQueary. Some thought that he should have "manned up" and stopped the event. Others demurred. The event "must have been shocking... Sandusky was a father figure." As one participant put it: "I don't know what I would have done."

Certainly, anyone can freeze in the moment. But of course the real question is what would we have done in the minutes and hours and days and weeks and months and years following the event. Is it really implausible to ask these men of alleged character -- leaders of the purportedly character-building Penn State football program -- to eventually come to their senses, follow up on what they fumbled in the moment, and ensure that children were protected from further abuse by a predator and bringing him to justice, if not in the critical moment, at least before others were hurt?

I rehearse these questions not to pile on to McQueary, but rather to celebrate someone else. A different graduate assistant. A graduate assistant I had when I was teaching at the University of Michigan in 2003.

Unlike Paterno's graduate assistant, who was a physical giant and a former team quarterback, my graduate assistant was a 25-year-old woman who's body had been wracked by cancer, lupus, and heart disease in quick succession. She was physically suffering, but she had the sort of strength of character that Joe Paterno is supposed to have instilled in strong young men (and that we have subsequently seen precious little of in point of fact).

In October of 2003, I was spending time in an interactive graphical virtual world called The Sims Online, doing research for what would become a book on conceptual issues in virtual worlds. One day, an online player spoke to me, asking if "God forgave" and confided (or at least claimed) that in a moment of anger he had hit his eight-year-old sister and broken her jaw.

I didn't know if the claim was true or not, but I felt it was my responsibility to contact the owners of the online game and pass along the report to them. Their response was somewhere between indifferent and annoyed. "If the person is offending you, just put them on mute". No, you don't understand, I argued, I was not offended; I am passing along a report of a real world crime against a child. The response I got from the game owner continued to be obtuse. I gave up, thinking, "I did what I was supposed to; I reported the incident."

A few hours later, I told Candace Bolter about the incident. She was shocked -- not at the game company, but with me. "And you stopped there?," she asked? Well yes, I said. "What more could I do?" I asked. Candace insisted that I had a responsibility as an educator in the State of Michigan to report the event. But this wasn't my student, I objected. That didn't matter to Candace. I needed to do more. Call the police. Call child protection services.

So I called the police. "Where did this happen?" they asked? I had no idea. For all I knew this didn't even happen in the United States (the game company wasn't telling). The police said there was nothing they could do. I got a similar response from child protection services. There was nothing they could do. I threw up my hands. I had tried. There was nothing more I could do. Or so I told myself once again. Candace would have none of it.

Candace began writing a series of letters to the game company insisting that they had a moral and legal responsibility to at least contact the user in question. When they stonewalled and tried to blow her off, she became even more persistent. Finally, after a month of this, Candace had had enough and she wrote a blistering letter to the game company that included the following memorable passage:

Quite frankly, this is a very serious issue and your lack of response is not only exasperating but also sickeningly disturbing. I literally lose sleep over this issue, yet everyone [there] must be sleeping so well (on comfy beds from the money your customers provide to you, it might be noted) that no one can even bother to reply to my inquiry.

Three days later, the game company responded that they had finally reviewed the chat logs (a month after the fact), and agreed that indeed local authorities should be notified.

" ... after careful review of our web log, we contacted local authorities and identified the player. Resolution of this incident now lies with the local authorities.

McQueary had seen a crime with his own eyes and as far as we know he did nothing to follow up on the incident. Candace had heard about a possible crime and she insisted that her professor follow up with the authorities. When he (which is to say I) failed, she took the initiative and did not stop until she was confident the police had been contacted.

Candace passed away in 2005 at the age of 27, but she was very much on my mind yesterday morning as I drove to school at Northwestern University. On the way, I saw a dog get away from a woman's back yard and attack a pit bull that a man was walking. The pit bull retaliated viciously, nearly killing the woman's dog. The woman and the man tried everything to get the pit bull to release the woman's dog and eventually they succeeded. The man let go of his dog's leash, grabbed a trash can, and used it to force the woman's dog through a gate and into her back yard. When he closed the gate he realized his dog had run off.

So, an angry and jacked up pit bull was on the loose in a neighborhood full of children and pets. I was late for class, so I started to drive to school. There was nothing I could do. Or was there? I circled back around and drove in a grid pattern looking for the dog. I saw it. I stopped my car, leaving it in the street, and I tailed the dog on foot, warning people to stay away from it. I called 911. The dispatcher said that the police were coming and that I could leave. But I didn't. I kept following the dog. The police never came, but about a half block from a playground a professional dog trainer happened along and eventually got the dog under control. The dog trainer took it to his kennel after giving me his card. I called the police again and told them where they could find the dog.

I continued on to school, went to my classroom, and began lecturing, but at a certain point in my lecture I felt the need to stop and tell the students what had happened to me on the way to class. I'm not sure why, but they applauded. I took that applause on behalf of my former graduate assistant Candace Bolter, who taught me that if we only do what we are obligated to do by law we are all lost. That, and she taught me that moral character has nothing to do with physical size and vacuous terms like "honor" but has everything to do with not quitting -- with going the extra mile to ensure that the innocent are protected, no matter how inconvenient that may be for the rest of us.