I will tell you something about courage and cowardice. I will speak primarily about men, because I am a man, and because the evil that grieves me was glimpsed by men, and these men turned away their eyes.
News accounts from England reveal that over 1,400 children in the borough of Rotherham were systematically brutalized over the past decade. The authors of this damning report indicate that the actual number is likely much higher. The report also details gang rapes of 11 year-olds. Children doused in gasoline and threatened with matches. A “grooming” process that entails addicting children to drugs. Children murdered, others missing.
Local police have known about this for over ten years. So have all manner of child welfare authorities and local government officials. They convened conferences to discuss it. They combatted it with guidelines and policies. They bravely met for many hours, and boldly authored internal memos.
Perhaps we should expect no more when community preservation is outsourced to bureaucracies, but the unavoidable reality is that on many occasions, Rotherham police came upon children being sexually exploited—in some cases, in the very instance of being raped—and arrested no one. The perpetrators are Pakistani; they might call us racists. The children seemed to consent. These gangs are violent.
All of which amount to an admission by those police officers that they are cowards, and something less than men. I’m reminded of the janitors who discovered Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky’s rape of children, and who said nothing, for fear of losing their jobs. They were cowards too, and deserve to be remembered as such.
We have lost the willingness to call evil by its rightful name, and the courage to stand in the face of it and say: “No. Not here. Not on my street. Not in my city.” There is no limit to the hells men devise when no one opposes them. “What’s the point?” a Rotherham victim asked investigators. “I might as well be dead.”
The men and women who failed her might ask themselves the same question. We might all ask it. What is the point, really, in preserving our comforts—our lives, even—if to do so we must become so small, so dark-hearted, that we turn our backs on the most vulnerable among us?
I suppose none of us knows whether he will be a coward until the moment demands courage. “Be prepared in season and out of season,” the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy. As far as we are concerned, perhaps this entails recognizing that the season is upon us—an evil season, a season when children worldwide are treated like so much trash, when questions once governed by common sense are now fodder for intellectual word-play, when an army gathering under a black flag is both a reality and a metaphor, for war rages in the hearts of men, and it is coming, is here already, in our neighborhoods and our homes and our own hearts, we good and decent people who are perhaps only better than these cowards because the hour has not yet come when evil stands on our doorstep and demands entrance.
And what then will we say? Will we tell ourselves it’s not as bad as it seems? Will we pretend steadfastness is someone else’s job? Will we promise that this is only a small compromise, that when the situation really demands it, we’ll be brave?
Cowardice has a thousand justifications. But to the wounded, it always looks the same: averted eyes, a turned back, something resembling a man or a woman walking away.