November 28, 2011

Moral ambiguity manufactures monsters

11-28-2011 Virginia:

If the Penn State downward spiral hasn't yet worked through all nine levels of hell, it is on its way. Perhaps a greater abomination is those who stood in the vestibule of hell watching a beast prey upon children. A microcosm of moral turpitude has tainted an entire community of good people.

Any organization that tolerates moral ambiguity gets more of it. Think about it. Any concept that isn't founded on moral certainty must, by definition, be ambiguous, the proverbial slippery slope. What was the moral certainty at Penn State football? Apparently it was winning games, happy alumni and large donations; everything else was ambiguous and negotiable. Now they will reap the whirlwind.

I have often said, "To know of wrongdoing and take no action makes you part of it." I have to amend that to reflect the failure of assistant coach Mike McQueary.

If his latest version of his actions in 2002 (when he saw a child being raped) is to be believed, he took some action, but insufficient action. Because he did too little he shares responsibility for every assault after 2002.


The casual conspiracy that allows a child molester to operate openly may have some explanation in the "bystander effect." It suggests that if people can separate themselves from responsibility by saying, "I've done what I can," or, "It is not my job," even decent people can acclimate to barbarity. Read the book "Ordinary Men," by Christopher Browning to see how easily morally bankrupt leaders can manufacture monsters.

There are many reprehensible examples of the bystander effect.

In 1964 Kitty Genovese was brutally murdered in a New York alley in an attack that lasted at least 30 minutes. Although some details of her extended murder are unclear, some people did see her, some people did hear her, and if they took any action it was not sufficient action.

In 1993 Kevin Carter took a famous photo of a tiny African child, a tiny starving child, literally nothing but skin and bones, lying helpless on the ground, a vulture in the background. Carter said he waited for the carnivorous bird to get into the right spot for his award-winning photo. The vulture waited for a meal. Carter waited for a photo. The doomed child waited for a human being to help him.

What is our moral certainty? What do each of us deem intolerable under any circumstances? On what principle will we risk our reputations, our careers, even our lives?


In 1972 U.S. Navy Petty Officer Michael Thornton and Lt. Thomas Norris, with a small team of South Vietnamese SEALs, were operating in the coastal jungles of North Vietnam. They were attacked by a much larger enemy force.

As they desperately fought their way back to the sea, Petty Officer Thornton lost sight of Lt. Norton. He asked a South Vietnamese SEAL where the lieutenant was. The SEAL said Norris was dead. As his Vietnamese allies retreated to the beach, Thornton fought his way back into the jungle. He would not abandon his lieutenant.

Thornton found the badly wounded Norris prostrate on the ground, two enemy soldiers nearby. Thornton killed them both, then waged a desperate battle to reach the beach while carrying his gravely injured officer. Thornton ran into the surf and swam out to sea, supporting his bloody comrade for hours until they were picked up by a friendly vessel.

Petty Officer Thornton's moral certainty would allow no other course of action, regardless of the risk, regardless of the consequences. This is the only occasion where the Medal of Honor was earned by saving the life of another Medal of Honor recipient.

Petty Officer Michael Thornton's instinct to live or die with his comrade was his moral certainty. It is the decision he will measure his life by. ..Source.. by John Chapman is a retired Army officer who often speaks on leadership in the Richmond area.

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