Two incidents, separated by time and distance, were reported in last week’s news. Despite the months and miles that separate one from the other, the connection between these disturbing stories says much about human reaction to violence.
The first was an AP report about a Texas rancher who allegedly came upon a man molesting the rancher’s 4 year old daughter. The second story was a Trib update update on the trial of Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant football coach on trial for 52 counts of sexual assault. The article summarized the testimony of former assistant Penn State football coach Mike McQueary, who testified that he saw and heard Sandusky sexually assaulting a 10 year old boy in a school shower.
The similarity in these stories is obvious: Both the unidentified Texas rancher and ex-coach McQueary told authorities that they witnessed a known subject sexually assaulting a young child. Where these stories differ is the reaction by each witness to these similar incidents.
In Pennsylvania, McQueary testified that he walked into the locker room and heard a ”skin-on-skin smacking sound” from the shower area. McQueary told the court that he looked into the shower area and saw that “Jerry Sandusky was standing naked in the showers behind a boy, slowly moving his hips.” McQueary’s reaction? he slammed his locker shut. Loudly.
In Shiner, Texas, the response was much different. A rancher told police that, in reaction to seeing his 4 year old daughter being sexually assaulted, he attacked the man. The rancher killed him with his bare hands.
From the most objective standpoint (and assuming all of the allegations are true) the two incidents are almost identical. Comparing the results becomes a psuedo psych experiment, one conducted solely for the purpose of studying the reaction to a scene of sexual violence. The extremely limited findings tell us that one witness reacted by announcing his presence and then walking away, while another took aggressive action leading to a fatal conclusion.committed a crime.
Let’s add a few layers of context. In McQueary’s defense, he walked into an incident involving a child he did not know being (allegedly) assaulted by Sandusky, a man who was a well known and respected figure as well as his superior. This obviously made for a more difficult choice, though he may regret his poor judgment, even his cowardice, for years to come.
The rancher, on the other hand, witnessed a scene that kicked in a primal and adrenalin-fueled instinct. Unfortunately, his paternal reactions are now muddled in an investigation that now must answer the question of whether the death was a result of mutual combat or a vengeful assault. The rancher could pay a steep price for possibly allowing his rage to control his actions.
Through the convenient lens of hindsight the focus of both witnesses becomes clear. The rancher focused his attention on the man attacking his daughter, while McQueary focused on his own shocked indignation. If we accept that both outcomes are less than ideal – a suspicious death in one instance and possibly more victims in the other – then any mistake made by these men comes down to the focus of their reaction.
Their focus should have been on the victims. The victims in these incidents were an innocent 4 year old girl and a 10 year old boy who suffered in a far more profound way than simply watching a violent sexual assault. They endured it.
Minus the details, the takeaway point from the comparison is this: Had both men responded by making the victims’ safety their number one priority, a lot of wrong could have been prevented.
Witnessing violent crime can be shocking, may require an instantaneous and difficult decision, and could create long-lasting consequences. Fortunately, there is a simple plan when faced with such a traumatic choice. It is the course of action least likely to have a negative outcome for the victim and the witness.
Protect. The. Victim.
Update 6/20: According to an AP report a Texas grand jury looking into the rancher’s deadly reaction came to the same conclusion as police investigators – his response in this instance was not a crime. Good news for the rancher and his family.