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The Sandusky Verdict: No Sticks or Stones, Just Whoops and Sighs of Relief

by on June 29, 2012 6:15 AM

Lucky for Jerry Sandusky he did not commit his foul deeds in 18th century England.

I say this because the reactions of the mob outside the courthouse in Bellefonte last Friday night recalled, in milder form, the abuse heaped on criminal mastermind Jonathan Wild as he was conveyed to the gallows in 1725. Here is an excerpt from Daniel Defoe’s account:

“The rudeness of the Mob to him…is not to be expressed, and shows how notorious his Life had been, and what Impression his known Villainies had made on the Minds of the People…; here was nothing to be heard but Curses and Execrations; abhorring the Crimes and the very Name of the Man, throwing Stones and Dirt at him all the way…

“In short there was a kind of an universal Rage against him, which nothing but his Death could satisfy or put an end to, and if a Reprieve had come, it would have, twas thought, been difficult for the Officers to have brought him back again without his receiving some Mischief, if not his Deaths Wound from the Rabble.”

Such public displays of vengeance thirst and blood lust came to be considered unseemly after a while. We want to believe we’re better than that. Are we, though?

The mood of the crowd in Bellefonte was similar to the mood of Londoners at the execution of Jonathan Wild: joy at word of all the guilty verdicts, catcalls as officers marched the handcuffed perp to the patrol car that carried him away.

Would people have heaved stones and dirt at Sandusky if they had been permitted to do so by the local constabulary? I believe they would have.

Instead, they had to settle for Woo People-style whoops. These struck me as a bit off-key, at first, just as the celebrations of Osama bin Laden’s death had a year ago.

The Sandusky case has been a sad and sorry business for everyone who respected Penn State, Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky himself. For the victims and their families, it is beyond sad and sorry.

The mother of one of the victims said it best: “Nobody wins. We all lost.”

What I felt when I heard the verdicts was closer to quiet satisfaction than elation, but then, I’m a quiet satisfaction kind of guy. Even when elation is more called for – say, when the Yankees, the team I have loved for 50 years, win the World Series – I might indulge in a single, silent fist pump.

But I think we quiet satisfaction types should think twice before we condemn those whose reaction styles differ from our own. Whooping and sagely nodding your head aren’t as different as they appear. Both reflect relief that justice appears to have been done. The victims did not bare their souls in vain. The jurors were neither bamboozled by bogus conspiracy theories, nor bedazzled by the defendant’s fame, reputation and influence.

The outcome may not make the victims whole, but at least the creep isn’t going to get away with his creepiness anymore.

Part of Sandusky’s creepiness resides in how bewildered he seems. If I were to write a caption for the look on his face as they stuffed him into the squad car it would be, “What’d I do? What’d I do?”

Even now, he maintains his innocence. My guess is he believes what he’s saying. It’s not that he doesn’t know that he did the awful things he was accused of doing, but that he doesn’t think what he did was awful because he genuinely loved the kids he was forcing himself on.

CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin went on at some length about how evil Sandusky is. When I think of evil, though, I think of evil intent – of scheming to harm others. Sandusky’s “grooming” practices come across as calculating, but they weren’t calculated to harm. It remains an open question which is worse – cold-blooded criminality or utter moral blindness.

I ask myself similar questions as I read about the fate of Ukrainian Jews during the Holocaust. We know about the efficiency with which the Nazis sent millions to their deaths. Less well known are the stories about individual soldiers and sympathizers – and their children -- who tormented individual Jews just for the fun of it, or simply because they could do so with impunity.

Who are the bigger monsters, the bureaucrats who designed the killing machine or the sadists who practiced random acts of viciousness?

All Jonathan Wild did, meanwhile, was hire thieves to commit robberies, charge the victims for the return of their valuables, then turn his robbers over to the cops. A double crosser par excellence, but a choirboy next to Jerry Sandusky.

We use the word “monster,” but the Sandusky case leaves us with the same old terrible reckoning as stories of Nazi atrocities: This is what humans are capable of.

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Russell Frank worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years before joining the journalism faculty at Penn State in 1998. He roots for the Yankees, plays blues guitar and harmonica (badly), bikes and hikes for physical exercise and does The New York Times crossword puzzle for mental exercise. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away all the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. He is the author of "Newslore: Contemporary Folklore on the Internet." His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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