Bob Franken

King Features Column

(The usual stuff: The deal with the syndicator means this column appears here a week after its newspaper release)

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       There are few expressions more offensively amoral than “collateral damage.” It is frequently used by military types to dismissively describe the innocent civilians whose lives are carelessly destroyed in a bombing run or other battlefield operation. The term designates them as “incidental” victims in the pursuit of some combat victory. What is so horrific about the abstraction is how it reflects a mindset that trivializes individual human beings, reducing them to background props in “the big picture.”
       I have been thinking of this while trying to grasp the conduct laid out in that honorific report on the investigation into the sexual abuse of so many young boys under the control of Jerry Sandusky, for three decades a trusted assistant to legendary Penn State University head football coach Joe Paterno. What is revealed is almost as contemptible as the assaults themselves. It clearly lays out the scramble by Paterno and other top university officials that lasted for years to conceal this torture of young boys from the public.
       Why? At all costs, they wanted to preserve the image of Paterno’s vaunted football program. That took precedence over the victims, who were left with no recourse, and left no protection for the children who would become Jerry Sandusky’s next prey. Paterno and the others didn’t use the term, but these kids were collateral damage to them. Their lives were ruined in childhood, as we learned in Sandusky’s trial, but the Nittany Lions could continue to win football games, the program unmolested, unlike the boys.  
       Only now are there calls to severely sanction Penn State to send the unmistakable message that such shameful indifference cannot be tolerated. There is a growing demand that the NCAA gut the school’s football program, which would be appropriate, since that seems to be the only thing that matters at this university.

       While we’re on the subject of punishment, there finally is a clamor to prosecute those whose gross financial misconduct have brought ruin to so many innocents. Obviously, their transgressions are not the moral equivalent of the vile offenses at Penn State — not entirely — but the belief system of so many in the corporate world clearly reflects that same kind of callous thinking. To protect the be-all-end-all bottom line, executives are now routinely laying off thousands of employees and/or abandoning the communities that for decades provided the framework for their success. The workers and abandoned hometowns are collateral damage.
       That is what’s so infuriating as we watch the greedy few accumulate even more wealth. They literally have taken it away from all those masses of human beings who earned it.
       It’s how the upper echelons have grown even wealthier at the expense of everyone below. The gap between the prosperous few and the rest grows wider and wider. Sapped of resources, the middle class is crumbling. Meanwhile, too much is not enough for those on high, so they spend a little to sow confusion and disrupt a political system that is supposed to act on the interest of all citizens but increasingly represents only the filthy rich.
       Actually “filthy rich” is an interesting term. It shouldn’t be a redundancy, but all too often it is. If their conduct gets close to breaking the laws, they simply bribe the lawmakers (oh, excuse me, contribute to their campaigns). If they have to pay more than minimal taxes, they throw a few more crumbs at the politicians eager to do their bidding and stifle reform. If that doesn’t work, they hide the money overseas.
       All of this is symptomatic of a cynical selfishness to which we are all susceptible. It’s more comfortable to ignore how our actions wreak havoc on others. Don’t rock the boat; come up with sterile terminology. “Collateral damage” certainly fits that description. And if we insist on being so numb, the damage to our civilization, at some point, might be irreparable.
       © 2012 Bob Franken
       Distributed by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

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