Earlier this week, in a typically smart column with an unfortunate headline that belied the actual point of the piece, Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins crystallized the Penn State story by comparing what has happened there with what has happened with the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts. Not with regards to the abuse, though of course that's a part of it, but Penn State's reaction to the abuse.
Former FBI agent Ken Lanning explained to Jenkins why Penn State was the ideal place for a monster to exist, and why the campus and the administration, even after all that has come out, still fights for itself:
“This is something that can happen to all institutions, but it is worse in organizations that have a certain aura about them,” Lanning says. “Two of the largest organizations in this country that have the biggest problem with this are the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts. When you have that image, a program idolized as pure, the harder it is to admit you’ve made a mistake. If you have this need to appear to be perfect, the harder it is to admit that you made an error in judgment.”
This, while certainly not forgiving, does help explain the insane, legitimately scary reaction of the Penn State campus and community after Joe Paterno was fired last night, starting with the strangest press conference we've ever seen (in which "journalists" actually began screaming, and which ended with students tipping over vans and marching through campus chanting "Fuck The Media." We stand from the outside, without the emotions of 50 years of attachment to the same supposed sterling institution, and we wonder, baffled, how can they not see? They are reacting to Paterno's firing not as an obviously necessary beginning to a protracted, perhaps endless healing process, but as an invasion by foreign hostiles. They have idealized their program as pure, and this is leading to even more errors in judgment. By circling the wagons of their closed-off community, they are making this so much worse. The rest of us look on, aghast.
Well, everyone other than Ashton Kutcher, anyway.
The campus cleanup will come today, and Penn State will face its first day in 61 years without Joe Paterno at the center of its world. There will be more protests, and more screaming, and more pain. There's a football game on Saturday, the last home game of the season, and the first without Paterno as a coach since 1949. It will be the end of everything, and a last fight against the dying of the light. They are not going to let this go easily. This is going to get uglier, again. Saturday is going to be madness.