One of the areas that I study is why soldiers behave the way that they do, especially in the period of World War I and the Russian Civil War. This has led me repeatedly to the question of atrocity. Why do atrocities occur? How do witnesses respond? How do outsiders react?
Americans have been thinking about this same set of questions over the past week. Pennsylvania State University, the flagship public university of my home state, was rocked by the arrest of a former assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky, on multiple counts of sexually abusing children. It soon developed that several of these assaults had taken place in the expansive football facilities of the school. On one occasion, in 2002, a graduate assistant named Mike McQueary had walked in on Sandusky raping a ten year old boy. McQueary, a former quarterback on Penn State’s team, fled the scene without stopping the felony or calling the police. The following day, he told head coach Joe Paterno, who in turn reported the offense up the Penn State chain of command. No one ever called the authorities, and no one thought to ask why not. For nine more years, Sandusky continued to abuse children.
The public response to Sandusky’s arrest last week (and the accidental leaking of the grand jury testimony that occasioned it) varied widely, from outraged disgust to rioting on the part of Penn State students when Paterno was fired. One of the most common questions, however, was how this could have happened. On call-in shows, on message boards, on social media sites, and in letters to the editor, citizens wondered why McQueary hadn’t stopped the rape and why no one from him to the president of the university had called the police. What was it about the culture of the institution that made these men act immorally?
Whether the participants know it or not, this debate is part of a larger debate regarding atrocity more generally, especially when it comes to the culpability of people who witness atrocity and fail to act. Many find comfort in the “bad apple” argument. Atrocities are committed by evil men like Sandusky and are abetted by cowards like McQueary. “If I’d have seen him raping that boy,” many comments begin, “I’d have beaten the crap out of him/called the cops/insert moral response here.” This position centers morality around the individual. Those who articulate it reaffirm both their own moral strength and the norms of the broader society. This is laudable, but historians of atrocity may find themselves murmuring “that’s what they all say.” We know that the pressures of small group socialization wreaks havoc with moral codes and that people respected for their morality in normal times can do awful things in times of crisis.
There were also immediate systemic explanations for the atrocity, many of them coming from within the culture of big time college athletics. Stewart Mandel, writing in Sports Illustrated, blamed the problem on the idolatry of famous coaches, which gives them unchecked power and warps the views of their subordinates. Thus, “what some view as cowardice probably seemed courageous to McQueary at the time: He went to The Authority’s house and relayed bad things about the coach’s long-time trusted confidant.” End the deification of coaches, Mandel writes, and people will report atrocious behavior when they witness it. This systemic view is more convincing in many regards. Anyone familiar with the history of ethical lapses in college sports knows that this situation could have happened just as easily at Alabama or Texas.
Still, there is something ultimately unsatisfying about a purely systemic analysis as well. Individuals can and do act in different ways when faced with moral dilemmas. Not every graduate assistant would have neglected his civic duty to notify the authorities. By the same token, not every soldier tolerates atrocity. In one case I ran across from November 1914, a Russian convoy commander entered the recently conquered Galician town of Sanok to discover a bacchanalia of marauding. Cossack enlisted men and local Ruthenian peasants were looting stores and apartments in the town as Cossack officers relaxed, indifferent to the carnage. This commander shot his revolver in the air and began beating the ne’er do wells before turning to the Cossack officers and demanding that they regain control over their troops. They reluctantly did.
What accounts for this difference in behavior? In the first place, it is important to notice that the failure to expose atrocity, whether in the Penn State locker room or among Russian army soldiers, is only partly about cowardice or careerism or other negative traits. It is just as importantly about a conflict between conflicting positive values. On the one hand, the witness belongs to a broader society that has norms prohibiting murder, marauding, or rape. On the other, he or she belongs to a much tighter small group that has enforceable norms that promote unconditional loyalty, obedience, and protection of other in-group members.
These small-group norms are strong, usually stronger than those of the broader society, and they are consciously developed and enforced. Military sociologists have long known and recognized that this “primary group solidarity” is among the most powerful motivating factors for soldiers around the world. As a result, establishing the “primary group” is a key goal of basic military training in all modern armies. Organized sports, which emerged out of a broader militarizing urge in the era of national armies, consciously mimicked this process. American football’s adoption of the military model is extreme even in the world of sports, as coaches and players take the notion of “going to war with my brothers” to comic lengths. In other words, it is not only about rich and powerful coaches, or, in the case of military men, about charismatic officers and warlords. It is also about the nature of socialization and the conscious creation of small group norms that may (and eventually do) conflict with the norms of society as a whole. For most of us, including 18 year old recruits (athletic or military), there at first appears to be no conflict between an unconditional commitment to the squad and morality. They are not told that they must condone child rape to play for Coach Paterno. It is only later, after the socialization has occurred, that someone like McQueary or a Cossack subaltern is faced with the conflict between protecting his group and protecting the vulnerable. By that time, as we have discovered, it is often too late. Modern states have been promiscuous in encouraging the extension of military models throughout their societies and cultures, so we now are more exposed to the dangers of in-group protection with very little broader social gain (unless an Outback Bowl berth counts as a compensation for these ills).
So what does give an individual the strength to challenge small-group dynamics in the name of a broader moral code? There are many possible answers for this, but the one that most military officers and other conservatives of a bygone age would have pointed to would have been “honor.” It is therefore more than a little ironic that the motto of the Penn State football team under Paterno was “success with honor.” For honor had at least partially tempered conformist and destructive pressures in the past. It was honor, for instance, that compelled the Russian convoy commander to confront his own army in the defense of the property of enemy citizens. This concept of honor had never been universal, much less universally applied, and it was waning precipitously already by the early part of the last century. In any case, aristocratic honor was never unconditionally good for the broader societies in which it was present. But now, it has been gutted by systematic mass militarization and the broad spread of a shallow right-wing populism, both of which converge neatly around the phenomenon of big-time American football in many ways. Honor has become a hollow phrase, cheapened by its pasting on football tunnel walls, military barracks, and $15 t-shirts at the campus store. It is mocked by Sandusky and by Abu Ghraib. Perhaps we are better off without this relic in our midst, but there are times, now that it appears to be gone, that we might have cause to miss it, just a little bit.