On the evening of July 27, 1984 my wife and I were in Westwood, a few blocks from the UCLA campus. It was just before the Los Angeles Olympics, and the streets were crowded. Suddenly we heard many sirens. A man came into the store and announced that someone had driven his car onto the sidewalk on Westwood Boulevard and mowed down many pedestrians. It turned out that the driver had no connection to terrorism.
Paramedics and firefighters were triaging the injured. There were 51 casualties, of whom 12 were critically injured and one killed − a 15-year-old girl. We had crossed that street only a few minutes earlier.
As we stood watching with the crowd, two police officers placed the handcuffed suspect in a patrol car, and he was driven away by a sole officer. I felt that the police should have been more careful. I thought that another officer should have been in the car, and a second patrol car should have escorted it.
I was wrong. The man had mowed down many pedestrians − at the time no one knew how many were dead. Despite this, no one in the crowd attempted to pull him out of the car, or throw a soft-drink cup, or even yell obscenities. The police knew liberal west-siders, and correctly assumed that in the presence of violent evil, they wouldn’t do anything, or even say anything.
Is it possible to be too civilized, like a pampered dog that no longer barks when criminals break in? Is it possible to go past the point of civilization and enter the realm of helplessness and apathy, where adults act like good little children and wait for someone in authority to do something?
This question has political implications. Years of liberalism have conditioned us to depend on the government to protect us, care for us, and tell us how to live our lives. Nevertheless, in 1984 Ronald Reagan was president, and the nation had swung somewhat to the conservative side.
But the question goes beyond politics and touches on what it means to be truly civilized. Have we reached the point that many people believe anger is always wrong? Have we confused petty anger over personal slights with righteous indignation over real evil?
Let those who love the Lord hate evil…
− Psalm 97:10
I believe that a civilized person is one who is angered by the infuriating, disgusted by the revolting, and moved to action by the intolerable. But many people believe that to be civilized, they must remain calm regardless of the circumstances, and that negative emotions are marks of the uncivilized. They believe themselves much too elevated for such primitive feelings.
Years passed. The incident in Westwood faded from memory. But I recalled it vividly when the scandal broke about the Los Angeles public elementary school teacher who had been molesting his students since at least 1994. It was brought to light not by parents, teachers, or school officials, but by a clerk in a drugstore who saw photos that the molester brazenly left to be developed. One photo showed a child with tape over her mouth. What the other photos showed I hesitate to imagine.
This sad story goes back at least to 1994, when a 10-year-old girl told her parents that her teacher had tried to reach under her desk and touch her genitals. The mother told the principal, who called sheriff’s deputies. The district attorney declined prosecution, believing that the case was weak. The teacher remained in the classroom.
Later, several students went to the principal and reported that they had been fondled, photographed inappropriately, and in at least one case given a cookie with a white substance on it. Reportedly, the principal told them they were lying. The teacher remained in the classroom.
On another occasion, two girls told a counselor that the teacher had touched them inappropriately. But the counselor told them they were making stories up. The teacher remained in the classroom.
Finally, late in 2010 the photo clerk called police. The principal was informed, the teacher was suspended − probably with pay − and for a year the sheriffs interviewed many students and former students. One deputy went to the school Dumpster and found a cup with a white substance in it − no doubt, the substance on the cookie. It was identified as the suspect’s semen.
Finally, the teacher was arrested. He is now in jail on $23 million bail, charged with molesting 23 girls and boys aged six to 10. More charges are pending. Finally, the teacher is no longer in his classroom.
After the initial allegations in 1994, could no one have walked down the hallway periodically and looked into the classroom? Teachers, counselors, and school officials, as well as school nurses and psychologists, are mandated reporters of suspected child abuse. It is a crime for them not to report, and in addition they can lose their professional licenses.
But apart from the negligent − or even enabling − school personnel, what about the parents who heard the allegations, as well as other adults such as coaches, physicians, or clergy? It is difficult to believe that so many children could have been molested over so long a time, and no one did anything. We hounded the elderly Joe Paterno to his grave because he was famous. But what about all these adults, including parents? Should they get a pass just because they weren’t famous?
Wasn’t there one among them who took it upon himself or herself to threaten the teacher with dire consequences if he didn’t stop? Wasn’t there one among them who waited for him after school, and reinforced the warning with a beating? Wasn’t there one among them who plastered every lamp post around the school with posters accusing him? Wasn’t there one among them who spray-painted “molester” and “pervert” on his car during school hours, so students and teachers would see it when school let out?
No, there wasn’t even one.
Unlike the upscale people in Westwood, most of these people are immigrants, some illegal, from Mexico and Central America. They are often afraid to complain and regard teachers as authority figures to be admired. But the net effect was the same as in Westwood − submissiveness.
It gets worse. Now a second teacher at that school has been arrested for molesting students. Los Angeles Unified is the second-largest school system in America. A 7-billion-dollar budget and a bloated bureaucracy don’t produce excellent education. They don’t even produce adequate safety. Only responsible individuals can do that. The bureaucrats protect students from trans-fats in the lunchroom. But protect them from molesters in the classroom? Not so much.
Bernie Madoff received multiple death threats and was attacked on the street. But the molesters walked around unmolested. What does that say about our values? What do you call people who are more upset by stolen money than by stolen innocence?
This scene from the film “Death Wish” says it best:
Paul Kersey: Nothing to do but cut and run, huh? What else? What about the old American social custom of self-defense? If the police don’t defend us, maybe we ought to do it ourselves.
Jack Toby: We’re not pioneers anymore, Dad.
Paul Kersey: What are we, Jack?
Jack Toby: What do you mean?
Paul Kersey: I mean, if we’re not pioneers, what have we become? What do you call people who, when they’re faced with a condition of fear, do nothing about it, they just run and hide?
Jack Toby: Civilized?
Paul Kersey: No!
People like that are the opposite of civilized. They are like sheep that see a lamb carried off by coyotes, but do nothing, hoping that the sheepdogs will protect them. But what if the sheepdogs are as apathetic as they are? What then?
Am I advocating a return to a primitive time when vigilantes meted out do-it-yourself justice? No. But that may happen if civilization continues to deteriorate. On the contrary, I am advocating a return to a more recent time, when a driver who mowed down 51 pedestrians, or a teacher who molested 23 children, would need several police officers to protect him as he was hauled off to jail.
Apathy and passivity are not characteristics of civilized people. They are characteristics of submissive people who invite an authoritarian government to control their lives.
Dr. Stolinsky writes on political and social issues. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. You are welcome to publish or post these articles, provided that you cite the author and website.