I awoke to the sound of radio reports on the trial of Jerry Sandusky. There was rejoicing outside the courtroom. Folks traveled for miles to be present when the all but inevitable guilty verdicts were reported. Sandusky was found guilty of 45 of 48 counts! Hurrah!
I listened to this celebration and wondered just what is wrong with us as a people. We make sport of human suffering, and then choose sides, pretending to be virtuous. We’re sinners all, and the Sandusky trial proves it.
Yes, the former coach at Penn State is now a convicted sexual predator. At 68, there is no sentence imaginable that will result in anything other than his death behind bars. He molested young boys. He abused the trust we placed in him. His colleagues turned a blind eye to his crimes because they did not want to believe what they saw. They preferred illusion to reality. Satan couldn’t really reside in Happy Valley, could he? Go, Lions!
Ten men stepped forward to testify that as children, Sandusky abused their trust and then abused their bodies. In the wings, a stepson was willing to testify that he, too, had been a target of Sandusky’s desire. There are, undoubtedly, other men who could tell stories about their encounters with the coach.
I doubt Jerry Sandusky would have found a comfortable role as a participant in the revelry in Plato’s Symposium, where desire between young boys and older men was celebrated by a philosopher we call one of the founders of our civilization. If there was something sublime about Sandusky, he never showed it to the world. Not in the clueless interview his lawyers permitted him to give to Bob Costas; not in the amateurish efforts of his lawyers to have something, anything, to say to the press. There is a time for silence. Efforts to explain or humanize Sandusky were a time in which silence would have been golden.
But is the man a monster? And if so, how much do we who cherish the sight and thought of his demise resemble him?
I marvel at high-profile trials, trying to understand what makes them different from the run-of-the-mill chaos that clogs the criminal court dockets. We make morality plays of these trials and seek in the particulars of the conflict at hand general truths by which we can live, or, at the very least, congratulate ourselves on our virtue. I say high-profile trials are almost always a snapshot of our collective hypocrisy. What draws us to the sorrow and ruin of another is the fear that we might come to ruin. We lust for justice not because we care about the other, but because the beast within must be served.
Does anyone really believe that putting Sandusky in a box for the rest of his life and then watching him die serves the interest of justice? It does not restore whatever innocence his victims lost. Indeed, we re-victimize those Sandusky abused all over again by sacrificing them on the altar of our great secular religion: Victimhood. Why, we would all be happy, healthy, wealthy and wise were it not for the discrete harms that come our way. We long for victimhood, or at the very least, we identify with victims, as a means of feeling better about what we imagine to be our own diminished and imperfect position in the world of our dreams. The Cult of Victimhood is what happens to a society that loses any sense of original sin. It is the heretic’s twisted religion.
I look at Jerry Sandusky and the boys he abused with a sense of sorrow. Nothing satisfies about this tawdry mess. A public trial redeemed nothing.
I once challenged a prosecutor about why she was driving such a hard bargain in a case involving a client of mine. "Are you saying what I do has no meaning?" she asked. "No," I replied. "It just means a whole lot less than you pretend it does."
So it is with the Sandusky trial. We enjoy for a moment what Christians used to enjoy each Sunday at their services: a taste of redemption. The conviction makes us feel better for a time. We can pretend that this misconduct now revealed, dissected and condemned marks some sort of social turning point. Why, justice was done. And now we must see that this sort of thing never happens again.
Expect new laws criminalizing those who see a crime against children but fail to report. Would such a law have stopped a thing here? The law of accessorial liability is already broad enough to ensnare anyone we want to punish. Will we give to prosecutors a whole new tool they can use to charge? The criminal code grows year by year, but crime never disappears. Instead, prison populations grow. We criminalize broader and broader areas of conduct, and yet our conduct doesn’t change. We waged war on liquor, and lost. We’re now busy warring against drug use, and losing generations of young men and women to penal servitude. And we’re busy waging war on desire, too.
There’s a word for what we do in our war on desire: sexophrenia. We are crazy about sex. We use it to sell every conceivable product. We drench ourselves in images of orgiastic pleasure. Then we react like super-sensitive Puritans when someone colors outside the lines. Jerry Sandusky is no victim, don’t get me wrong; but he is a symptom of something larger, a sexophrenia that refuses to acknowledge the ubiquitous character of human sexuality, and pretends that we are not, each of us, products of desire.
Biology is destiny; culture and society are contingent. The great rejoicing over the conviction of Jerry Sandusky is a symptom of a society that congratulations itself on being healthy, all the while harboring a deep ambivalence bordering on hypocritical sickness.
Jerry Sandusky will die behind bars. His victims are martyrs. We love this passion play pitting good versus evil so long as it remains something we can claim is so far removed from own worlds that it can be viewed from a distance. But don’t kid yourself. If you’re smiling today because Jerry Sandusky will die behind bars ask yourself why the destiny of complete strangers draws you in so: The answer will be because the trial held up a mirror to passions that stir you.