Editorial by John Ziegler

When Do the Ends Justify the Means of Lying?


Lost in last weekend's historic triumph of Bucks County's Neshaminy High School at the PIAA State Football Championships, was a fascinating story that raises some interesting questions about how far authority figures should go to further a cause that they perceive to be just.

At halftime of the Class AA title game, Washington High School was trailing 12-6 to Pen Argyl High School. Washington's Head Coach of the last 22 years, Guy Montecalvo, gathered his troops in the locker room and suddenly announced that this would be his final game. He told them that, win or lose, he was going to retire from coaching. His players and coaches were stunned. By the end of his emotional speech, some were in tears. They were also inspired. Washington went on to dominate the second half and won the state title by the final score of 19-12.

Amidst the ensuing celebration there was just one little matter to take care of. There would be no need to say goodbye to the coach or start searching for his replacement. He wasn't retiring. He never really was. He had simply lied to his team as a way of motivating them to make a comeback. "I had kind of run out of things to say at halftime," Montecalvo said. "I thought that I had to try something to wake them up."

As the author of a book about high school football, I know that this is hardly the first time that a coach has lied to his players (though I honestly have never heard about one doing so under such blatant and dramatic circumstances). I once witnessed a coach screaming at his star defensive player on the sideline for celebrating an interception far too emphatically. The coach told the player that he would NEVER play for him again, until, in the middle of his diatribe, his own team fumbled the ball back and the coach abruptly told his confused and teary-eyed player, "Now go back in there and get that ball back!!"

While such situations certainly have a humorous component to them (Montecalvo's players reportedly laughed about his lie after the game), they also seem to introduce some compelling issues. Is it appropriate for a teacher to lie to his students if he thinks the ends will justify the means? How about authority figures in general? Do the rules change when it comes to really important things like war, or a state championship game? What if the lies don't work out for the "good"?

I still remember lies my teacher told me in second grade. I once had a Nun, eager to get a misbehaving class to sit forward while in church, tell me that those who looked in the back of the chapel would be dammed to hell (I still have never been able to find any independent verification of that teaching in Catholic canon). On another occasion, a lay teacher got our class to stop crying about something by insisting that humans only had so many tears to use in our lifetime and we didn't want to use them all up as kids and have none left as adults (I must have really cried a lot back then, because I never cry now). Then, of course, there was the Santa Claus lie. Don't even get me started on the deep impact THAT one has had on millions of Americans' view of lying (including, evidently, Bill Clinton).

Obviously, we all tell "harmless" lies all of the time. Any man in a relationship with a woman will tell you that she actually wants/expects you to lie to her about any number of issues beyond just the look of her posterior in her new jeans. I even understand that, as hard as it is to believe, women sometimes actually lie to men as well.

However, I believe that there is a serious issue here, especially in this time of war. This football coach's lie to inflame the passions of his team doesn't seem all that different (in context, not magnitude) from deceptions that our own government has been accused of telling in order to stir our fervor for various wars. Many scholars still believe sixty years later that we were lied to about the "surprise" attack on Pearl Harbor so that we would support getting into World War II. Some may argue that, even if true, ridding the world of Nazi Germany was well worth the deceit that it might have taken to get that job done.

Similarly, what if our evidence against Osama bin Laden is not nearly as strong as we say it is, but we are lying about it because we "know" that he is responsible for the attacks of 9/11 and we think that it is in the best interest of the world to be able to fortify public opinion against him? Heck, either on purpose or by accident, we have already been found to have exaggerated the WTC death toll by at least a multiple of two. Of course, just like with the football coach, if our team ends up victorious in the battle, the potential lies don't seem to matter nearly as much when/if we ever find out about them.

The first casualty of war has always been the truth. I guess now we know that football and war are even more a like than we thought.

source:<a href="http://inq.philly.com/content/inquirer/2001/12/19/opinion/pa/SCZIEG19.htm">The way that this column appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer</a>

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