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#384 “Just Following Orders”

June 9th, 2020

Richard Marker

“We were just following orders”, said the Buffalo police caught on camera purposely and aggressively harming an elderly gentleman, and then simply walking away from him even though his injuries were apparent immediately. Worse, when they were held accountable, their entire unit chose to support them with the same defense.

This piece expands on comments on a recent VLOG. That piece predated this incident. It was recorded at the beginning of the protests, demonstrations, and marches – and in response to police behaviors to that and leading up to them.

In that VLOG, I spoke of the evident absence of ethics and social justice training for our police forces in the USA. Were that training to be the norm, the abundance of police brutality and murder cases might well be far fewer. Officers would not only know what not to do, but, as important, other officers would be empowered to stop those who violated those behaviors.

I also mentioned, as but one example, the training that every student and all military in Germany are required to have – to understand that there are human behaviors, ethics, and norms that rise above “orders.” A law which is unethical must be ignored. An order that is a violation of rights must be resisted. [I am not idealizing Germany – we know that racism, nativism, and xenophobia exist there too, but those educated in Germany are explicitly taught the difference.]

West Germany instituted that systemic standard in response to the lessons of Nazism. The Nuremburg trials made clear that “just following orders” was not a sufficient defense of crimes against humanity or any other ethical violation. If you violated those laws, you were not protected by a “following orders” defense; you were culpable because there can never be a legitimate order to violate human rights. In the contest between authority and humanity, humanity must win.

It troubled me to hear those words from the Buffalo police, but it underscored for me what we must be addressing as we hear arguments to “defund the police.” If we mean by that the de-militarizing of local police forces, I am all for that. If we mean to radically reform our shocking incarceration system and no longer permit for-profit prisons, I am all for that. Yes, there is much more to change that could and would be brought about by de-funding some of what we mean by policing.

I spent time this weekend reading a great deal about the many different defunding proposals and many are very worthwhile. With political will and wisdom, some of these changes will become the norm. But a couple of cautions that occurred to me as I read. There will inevitably be some sort of policing. It would be terrible public policy to privatize policing as a result even though I suspect that there are those who are already salivating at the opportunity to financially benefit – as some have done with private prisons. And while neighborhood involvement is indispensable, we want to make sure that neighborhood empowerment does not lead to unaccountable vigilantes.

Which brings me back to the primary point of this piece: accountability and underlying values.

Toward the end of a most shattering week, key military leaders stood up to the POTUS’ proposed misuse and abuse of our military to quell peaceful protests. Their outspoken defense of Constitutional mandates, and the clear limits of the role of the military in domestic issues were welcome indeed. [Would that some in the Senate had been willing to affirm that they understood the Constitution over the last 3 tumultuous years!]

What has emerged too often during this embarrassing three years in American history is that there are those so afraid to not follow orders, even if it means violating the law, ethics, or human decency, that we have inched too close to authoritarianism. It appears that too many elected officials, too many in police departments, and too many citizens have not been taught or never absorbed the lessons of the limits of authority and the primacy of ethical standards over abuse of power.

Going forward, whatever policing system emerges, whoever gets elected to any office, and whoever is involved in any way in our justice system must participate in and be judged on an understanding of when authority must be rejected and when orders must not be followed. This alone will not guarantee the elimination of police brutality, nor will it eradicate shameful racism, nor will it rid us of deep-seated xenophobic attitudes. Much more needs to be done to re-set our national moral compass.

But it is a start. One would hope that we never again hear the plea after clear abuses of human persons or their rights: “we were only following orders.”

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