Friday, May 13, 2011

USS Indianapolis & Scapegoats

Insecure people create scapegoats

San Angelo was treated recently by the visit of Loel Dean Cox, hero and survivor of World War II. This Texas farm boy from Comanche was on the bridge of the USS Indianapolis when a Japanese submarine accidently spotted them and fired six torpedoes.

His harrowing tale has been told in film and books, but to hear him tell it is special. Just past midnight, on July 30, 1945, midway between Guam and Leyte Gulf, his ship was hit by two torpedoes, just weeks before Japan surrendered.

The Navy scapegoating began and the ship’s captain, the late Charles Butler McVay, III, was court-martialed. Among other things, evidence that would have cleared McVay was withheld. The Navy Department only wanted a scapegoat. That was 1948. For years the surviving crew fought for justice for McVay without success.

Cox, in his San Angelo talk May 12, told of an eleven-year old boy who in 1998 recognized the miscarriage of justice (of all places from the film “Jaws”) and wrote a paper for his school: McVay should not have been court-martialed. The New York Times and a congressman took up the cause and in 2001 justice prevailed for McVay. With pressure from Congress the Navy at last conceded that he was innocent of any wrong-doing.

I was aware of the tragic loss of ship and lives (out of 1197 aboard only 317 survived) but until hearing Cox tell of his experiences, the story was just a story. (Cox grew up in Sidney, Texas, five miles from Stag Creek, where I was once a pastor.)

It brought to my mind how common the act of scapegoating has been in our young nation’s history. So where did this scapegoat tradition get started anyway?

Each year in ancient Israel on the Day of Atonement, the record of all the sins of the Israelites were, by ritual and blood sacrifice, transferred to a goat. This goat was then released into the desert, taking with it the sins of the people. The result being that the sinners got off scot free and the goat died in the wilderness.

The beginnings of the scapegoat ordeal was in the years following the escape of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt and on their way to the Promise Land. (See Leviticus 16.)
Since the goat is sent away to perish, the word "scapegoat" has come to mean a person who is blamed and punished for the sins, crimes or sufferings of others, generally as a way of distracting attention from the real causes (Encyclopedia Americana).

Scapegoats are used even today as a defense ploy to take the heat off the real culprit. It is terribly evident in both government and the military. And in the business world, scapegoating is all too common. Minor employees are blamed for the mismanagement or mistakes of senior executives.
René Girard, French historian and literary critic, writes that one person is singled out as the cause of the trouble and is expelled. This person is the scapegoat. Girard writes: “social order is restored as people are contented that they have solved the cause of their problems by removing the scapegoated individual.”

There are many ways that the powerful slough off, deflect or ignore their guilt. “Shoot the messenger” is one popular method. “Blame the victim” is a favorite of rapists and insecure men. The 1690s Salem witch-hunts and the 1950s “communist threat to America” paranoia of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Trying to deflect their own shortcomings and incompetence by blaming others.

Have we so soon forgotten what the Army brass did concerning the “friendly fire” death of Pat Tillman, Jr., the Arizona Cardinals football player who left a million dollar contract behind to fight for his country. He died in the mountains of Afghanistan and to this day the cover up and foul-ups of his death have never been satisfied.

Today’s scapegoat is Private First Class Bradley Manning, accused of leaking a trove of secret government documents later published by the Wikileaks website, sits in solitary confinement without trial, pending a court martial. Our government, like the Army and Navy hates to be caught with its pants down.

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