e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu

11/10/2011

Zinn

The great historian Howard Zinn writes about his recollections of dropping napalm on a German-occupied French village at the end of WWII. He says the allies were essentially waiting for Germany to surrender at that point and that dropping the napalm was fundamentally unnecessary. He recalls getting the orders from commanding officers and then, along with his fellow pilots, carrying out the orders.

After his honorable discharge, his GI Bill-funded education, and the beginning of his distinguished career as a teacher and activist, Zinn concluded that war was unjust and looked back with honesty at his involvement in that injustice. He says when he thinks of getting those orders, he can understand why many fail to act when challenged or faced with an opportunity to take a stand. It's hard, for one thing. It causes us pain, discomfort, and loss.

I think of this as I read accounts of the molestation and rape scandal at Penn State. A coach who runs an outreach program for at-risk children commits rape. He's a powerful and influential man. Janitors and graduate assistants catch him in the act, hem and haw, and eventually tell others at the University. Nobody calls the police. The abuse continues. The inaction of the growing network of individuals who knew but did nothing is stunning. Taking that stand might have been hard, might have hurt one's career, might have resulted in losing a friend or losing one's standing.

But it would have been the right thing to do.