A thought on moral cowardice and Joe Paterno

In his memoir, General Ulysses S Grant talks about being a moral coward on two occasions that I can remember. The first was while riding through the wilderness of Texas at the time:

After the second night at Goliad, Benjamin and I started to make the remainder of the journey alone….On the evening of the first day out from Goliad we heard the most unearthly howling of wolves, directly in our front. The prairie grass was tall and we could not see the beasts, but the sound indicated that they were near. To my ear it appeared that there must have been enough of them to devour our party, horses and all, at a single meal. The part of Ohio that I hailed from was not thickly settled, but wolves had been driven out long before I left. Benjamin was from Indiana, still less populated, where the wolf yet roamed over the prairies. He understood the nature of the animal and the capacity of a few to make believe there was an unlimited number of them. He kept on towards the noise, unmoved. I followed in his trail, lacking moral courage to turn back and join our sick companion. I have no doubt that if Benjamin had proposed returning to Goliad, I would not only have “seconded the motion” but have suggested that it was very hard-hearted in us to leave Augur sick there in the first place….

The second was the first time he lead troops into battle:

While preparations for the move were going on I felt quite comfortable; but when we got on the road and found every house deserted I was anything but easy….As we approached the brow of the hill from which it was expected we could see Harris’ camp, and possibly find his men ready formed to meet us, my heart kept getting higher and higher until it felt to me as though it was in my throat. I would have given anything then to have been back in Illinois, but I had not the moral courage to halt and consider what to do; I kept right on.

In Grant’s case, he takes what we would consider the more heroic path but he points out that he only did it because he is afraid of what other people will think of him.

Looking at it – from here in my nice warm home – it seems impossible that Joe Paterno could have shown such a moral cowardice as to let a subordinate – or his boss for that matter – rape a 10 year boy and not call the police. But like most of us, even Joe Paterno, the most powerful man in town, was afraid of what other people would think of him if he became a trouble maker.


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