I went to junior high in a tough, ethnically mixed and working-class town in southeastern Massachusetts, the kind of school where fistfights were a daily occurrence and getting jumped felt like a constant danger. You either fought back, or you didn’t.
One of the kids who didn’t was a boy we’ll call Joe. He was huge, one of those kids who in eighth grade was already taller than most grown men, but he was also still awkward and covered in baby fat. His size and placid demeanor made him the ideal target for a gang of bullies, who each lunch hour would use him for entertainment.
Every day, they would surround him, shove him, punch him and back him against a wall of lockers and cruelly taunt and tease him, with the entire student body as audience to his humiliation. After the first few days, Joe’s older brother, a 10th grader, began to come over from the nearby high school and stand beside him, but he too was no match for the bullies. It happened every day, and every day, for the whole year, we kids all stood and watched.
I remember being astounded that the teachers, having retreated for the lunch hour into their lounge a few doorways away, weren’t aware of what was happening. I also remember my confusion when I realized I was wrong, that they did know but didn’t intervene. That may have been my first inkling that adult authority figures would sometimes not be up to the role they were given.
I also remember standing against my locker, watching this cruelty play out, and beginning to think that maybe, if I and a few other kids walked over to join Joe and his brother against the wall of lockers, maybe a few other people would join us too, and maybe we could stop this thing. But when I shared the idea with friends and tried to recruit them to join me, they acted as if I had lost my mind.
“No way!”, they said. “What are you, an idiot?” Not wanting to be an idiot, and lacking the guts to make myself a target, I watched and did nothing, like everyone else, and it has bothered me ever since.
That was a long, long time ago, and in all that time I’ve never told that story to anyone, probably because I’m not proud of my role in it. I hadn’t been brave enough to do what I knew was right. But that failure taught me a few things, about myself and about other people. It taught me that sometimes, it’s not the things you do that cause you the most shame, it’s the things you don’t do. Today, I don’t remember those brothers’ names, and at the end of that school year my dad, an Air Force sergeant, got transferred to another state, so I don’t know how their story turned out. But I do still recall their faces and that sense of helplessness, from them and from the rest of us, and ever since, whenever I see people put up against the wall and victimized, they remind me to do something and say something.
Which brings us to President Donald Trump, Senate Republicans and U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, the sole member of his party in either the House or Senate to vote for Trump’s impeachment. In his speech this week announcing his decision, Romney noted the immense pressure he had felt to stay quiet, to “stand with the team,” as he put it. But he did not.
“I am aware that there are people in my party and in my state who will strenuously disapprove of my decision,” he said on the floor of the Senate, “and in some quarters I will be vehemently denounced. I am sure to hear abuse from the president and his supporters. Does anyone seriously believe I would consent to these consequences other than from an inescapable conviction that my oath before God demanded it of me?”
It didn’t take a prophet to make such a prediction, which of course has come true. Some of those criticizing Romney’s action profess to do so out of a belief that Trump is innocent, which I guess is possible in a world in which people still believe the Earth is flat and vaccines cause disease. Given the facts, though, I don’t find such claims remotely credible, and neither will history. Judging from their rhetoric, other Trump supporters apparently see the president and his minions not as the bullies in the story but as its victims, as those who need defending, and I don’t find that credible either.
For at least some, however, their anger at Romney will be proportional to the shame that he makes them feel for not doing as he did. They aren’t an anonymous eighth grader still trying to make sense of the world; they’ve been around, they’re grown men and women. They are members of the U.S Congress, with oaths to keep, responsibilities to carry out and a Constitution and a legacy to protect. They are supposedly the best of us, and when the passions cool and perspectives improve, they will remember what they did, or more accurately didn’t do, at the time it mattered, and so will history.