Violence against peaceful protesters–a federal crime?

So far I have not been able to get past the still image of the latest shocking example of police violence inflicted on unresisting young people.

I don’t need to watch the students begin to writhe and cry out in pain, I don’t have to hear the gasps of the onlookers or the shouts of the cops as the situation shifts suddenly from quiet resistance to chaotic disarray.  My imagination can set it all in motion, without the aid of video.

But the video was shot, and is now making its viral way around the Web, just like those shocking images, from not very long ago, of the abused prisoners in Abu Ghraib.

There too, what was striking was the imbalance of power–the heavily armed and aggressively clothed military police, against unarmed, and, in the case of Abu Ghraib, naked civilians, whose only crime, in most cases, was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

At both UC Davis and Abu Ghraib, the victims may have lacked firepower, but they have something even more potent on their side: the moral outrage of the onlookers.  Once those moments of violation are caught on film and sent out into cyberspace, it doesn’t take long for public opinion to rise up against such an obvious abuse of power.

I am always curious, in a morbid sort of way, about the mentality of the perpetrators of this kind of violence.  Are they the grown-up version of the 7th grade bully, who takes pleasure in making other kids squirm?  Has their capacity for empathy been dulled or extinguished?  Are they simply sick, psychopathic sadists?

If any of these are the case, how could we have entrusted the crucial job of maintaining social order–otherwise known as policing–to such people?

The same old boys’ club that protected Jerry Sandusky and the Catholic priest pedophiles all those years is a strong force in the military and the police forces.  But at some point an individual will push things too far, and the club will no longer be able to protect him.  Thus Charles Graner, the mastermind behind the Abu Ghraib abuses, was eventually thrown in prison himself, and the officer who took it upon himself to casually pepper-spray those innocent UC Davis students has been suspended.

Nobody in the U.S. wants to see an eruption here of the kind of civil violence that overtook Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and so many other countries where civilians have been pitted against police or soldiers deployed by government officials who cared more about their own power than about the rights of their citizens.

Here in the U.S., we simply want to be able to exercise our constitutional right to peaceably gather in public places to express our political views.

Any city, state or federal government official who inflicts violence on such a peaceful gathering is guilty not only of a serious human rights violation, but also of violating the U.S. Constitution.

Last time I looked, this was a federal crime.

A teachable moment at Penn State?

What is most shocking to me about the current scandal at Penn State (sports and sexual abuse of boys, in case you hadn’t heard) is the response of the students to the announcement last night that longtime head football coach Joe Paterno was fired.

Do the hundreds of students who poured into the streets to smash car windows and pull down lamp posts believe that it was OK that the coach turned a blind eye to the repeated rape of boys, some as young as 10 years old, in the university’s football locker room showers?

Do they want to be part of an institution that condones this kind of behavior?

If anything, the students should have taken to the streets to demand Paterno’s resignation, along with that of his boss, Penn State president Graham Spanier.

But no.  To these rampaging students, what happened in those showers with the pedophile assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was less important than hanging on to their beloved head coach.

This is reminiscent of so many other, similar scandals, in which men’s loyalty to social groups, whether it’s the military, a fraternity, a gang, or a football team, is so strong that it completely skews their independent moral compasses.

If you presented a group of unaffiliated students with a scenario like what we’ve just witnessed at Penn State, and asked them whether assistant coach Mike McQueary was right to blow the whistle on Sandusky after witnessing him rape a 10-year-old boy in the football locker room shower late one night in 2002, I think most of those students would say McQueary was in the right.  They would also most likely come to the conclusion that it was the duty of McQueary and Sandusky’s boss, Joe Paterno, to report the crime.

But obviously things don’t look so clearcut when various conflicting loyalties come into play.  When McQueary realized that Paterno and other school officials were not going to report Sandusky, should he have pursued the matter independently–even when it might very well have cost him his job?

Of course, the answer is yes.  How could McQueary and Paterno sleep at night knowing that Sandusky was using university facilities to lure in boys?  Boys, who, by the way, he met through a charity he belonged to, the Second Mile Foundation, which purports to help disadvantaged children in Pennsylvania.

It saddens but does not surprise me that the students at Penn State who protested the firing of Coach Paterno are willing to put their team loyalty ahead of the pursuit of justice and integrity in this case.

It’s very similar to the loyalty of the Catholic priesthood, which chose to protect its own rather than stand up for the rights of the young children, mostly boys, who were being molested by pedophile priests for years and years.

Or like the loyalty of fraternity boys who would never rat out a “brother” who raped a girl during a party.

I’m sorry, guys, but this is not brotherhood.  It’s bullying: one person taking advantage of someone with less social power or physical strength, and a whole bunch of bystanders letting it happen.

This is what the Penn State students are proud of?  They should be ashamed.

At least Joe Paterno, at 84, does seem to be showing some signs of moral rectitude.  “This is a tragedy,” he said yesterday. “It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”

Yeah, Joe.  You may have had more football game victories than any other college coach, but you sure could have done more.

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