At Penn State, many miles to go
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Through the centuries, "going the extra mile" has come to mean simply giving a little more than what's expected. But that's not the idiom's original phrasing or meaning -- and Jerry Sandusky must have known it.
He didn't name the nonprofit he founded for disadvantaged children "The Extra Mile." He chose to name it "The Second Mile" -- a phrasing that goes back to the idiom's source and therefore carries a special significance.
In ancient times, throughout the sprawling Roman empire, a Roman soldier could compel any civilian to carry his heavy gear for a mile. Wherever the civilian was going, whatever he was doing, he had to abandon it and submit, temporarily, to forced labor. He had to trudge one mile hauling who knows how much weight.
Citizens of vanquished countries bitterly resented serving their hated occupiers in this way. That's what it meant, and why it was so startling, for Jesus to tell his oppressed fellow Jews, in the "Sermon on the Mount" of Matthew 5, "And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two."
Go the second mile: Do much more than the law requires -- even for someone who's taking advantage of you. Even when the law is unjust.
Jerry Sandusky chose this specifically biblical name for his charity, implying that he'd be doing much more for children than the law requires or the government provides. Instead, under cover of a Christian call to self-sacrifice, he (allegedly) took horrific advantage of society's most vulnerable members.
Instead of sacrificing himself for others, he is accused of sacrificing them to his monstrous appetites.
And instead of adults going the second mile for children, it's now the children who'll be hauling a terrible load through the miles of life still ahead. Some of them will collapse under its weight.
Some of them might have been spared this fate, but it seems quite a few adults in "Happy Valley" didn't go even the first mile for these anonymous victims. That was essentially the grand jury's non-biblical but damning conclusion, revealed nine days ago.
Mr. Sandusky was charged with sexually assaulting at least eight boys, from 1994 to 2008, who were part of his charity's programs. If the charges are true, his moral failure -- let's not mince words -- his acts of evil are nauseatingly obvious.
But two Penn State officials were also charged, not for directly injuring any children themselves, but for failing to report to police one of Mr. Sandusky's alleged crimes in 2002 -- the on-campus rape of a 10-year-old boy -- and for providing false information about their handling of the long-ago incident during the recent investigation. They are accused of failing to do even the minimum that the law -- a just and reasonable law -- requires.
Despite the presumption of innocence and the months to wait until the full airing of facts at trial, revulsion at these failures and at others' failure to take the possibility of wrongdoing seriously led Penn State trustees to fire legendary coach Joe Paterno and to force the resignation of longtime university president Graham Spanier.
The trustees were right.
At Saturday's game, many people went beyond the minimum civility required for a peaceful and enjoyable sporting event. The Nittany Lions walked rather than ran into the stadium and joined the opposing team to pray together. Spectators observed two moments of silence and formed a blue-clad human ribbon to honor victims of child abuse.
Their sorrow and concern were right.
But was it right to hope that all these appropriate actions meant "the healing process started to begin?" Only if we remind ourselves that it will be, because it must be, a long process. Collectively, we have a mile or two to walk.
Already the idea that sexually abusing children is a "disease" has been suggested. If so, it's not only a disease. The human will is involved. No one chooses to get breast cancer, but anyone can choose not to rape a little boy.
We all have our own sins, so we don't throw stones. But some actions have more dire consequences than others. As a culture we owe one another the respect necessary to discern among them, punish as appropriate and protect the innocent. It's the minimum we must do. It's the first mile.
Going the second mile is not for us to do collectively; that would be enabling. It's for the individual to undertake, if and when he's strong enough.
That's the greatest irony here: If anyone in this sordid and tragic situation ever truly goes the second mile, it will be the victims whose trust and very beings were so violated.
For them, there is a promise a little earlier in the same chapter of Matthew: "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."
First Published November 14, 2011 12:00 am