COMMENTARY: Life As It Is, Or As We Wish It To Be

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c. 2007 Religion News Service

DURHAM, N.C. _ Now that our local District Attorney has asked a state prosecutor to take over assault charges against three Duke University lacrosse players, it seems an even chance that the case will simply go away.

Many want exactly that. The alleged victim would lose her day in court. The alleged assailants would carry into adulthood and every job interview unanswered questions about their actions and character.

No one would have to listen to detailed accounts of an attack, lacrosse team parties, racist slurs, assaults on women or arrogant attitudes among the privileged. No witnesses would describe a university’s hard-partying culture. We would miss the familiar rape defense: “she asked for it.”

Better, they seem to think, to let unanswered questions haunt accuser, accused, university and the community than to hear unflattering testimony about life as it is.

Certainly, if criminal charges are unfounded, they should be dropped. But it would be a tragic outcome to an important series of events if the whole matter vanished as well. For the “Duke lacrosse rape scandal,” as people call it, has never been just about rape, lacrosse or even Duke.

The firestorm that erupted last March revealed deep fissures in our city, disturbing questions about our largest employer, and far-reaching questions about our society: out-of-control drinking, attitudes of entitlement, helicopter parenting, racist attitudes among tomorrow’s leaders, boorish behavior toward women, and market-minded leaders who seemed reluctant to probe for deeper meanings.

That firestorm must be taken seriously. A few quickly shelved self-studies don’t cut it. Hoping a former equilibrium can be resumed isn’t worthy of a university claiming elite status. Pinning a community’s future on a single black woman’s claims against three white students is an affront.

What people said about Duke’s “plantation” ethos won’t go away. Neither will the rage expressed by Duke women about their treatment in a jock culture. Neither will complaints of Durham citizens about having Duke students as neighbors. Neither will worries among the academically serious about lost focus.

From the beginning, the Duke matter has been a lens into larger cultural issues that are corroding our common life. It’s the same kind of attitude we see among political leaders who resist accountability and candor, corporate bosses and church officials who have to be dragged into court before they will admit anything, and citizens who think dishonesty is a clever strategy instead of a moral failing.

Almost every detail here speaks to troubling flaws in our society. It is tragic that those issues haven’t been taken seriously. No one wanted three young men railroaded into prison. No one cried out for injustice. But they did want an accuser’s claims taken seriously. They did want systemic issues taken seriously.

They did want a university to do what universities are supposed to do, namely, lead the way in seeking knowledge, in bringing intellect to bear on society, in shaping tomorrow’s leaders in something deeper than dreams of material prosperity.

Instead, we see a pattern. The national reassessment that could have happened after 9/11 _ squandered. Reassessment of corporate ethics that could have followed the Enron scandal _ squandered. Reassessments of foreign policy, military strategy, global economic policy, oil dependency and religious extremism that could be happening now _ all squandered _ because few leaders dare to be civic-minded.

It isn’t a matter of wanting Duke or any leading institution to fail. We just want them to do their jobs.

(Tom Ehrich is a writer, consultant and leader of workshops. His book, “Just Wondering, Jesus: 100 Questions People Want to Ask,” was published by Morehouse Publishing. An Episcopal priest, he lives in Durham, N.C. His Web site is


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