ICE Agents must intelligently disobey inhumane orders

A trick question is sometimes asked by the prominent leadership scholar, Barbara Kellerman, from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. “How many people did Hitler kill?” The correct answer, which almost no one gives, is “none”. The killings were all done by the followers of the Fuhrer (which means leader in German)

After the war, justice was meted out to Nazi officials through what became known as “The Nuremberg Trials.” The most famous of these called to account for their crimes senior officials who had survived the war. Lower level professionals who participated in the atrocities also stood trial. A principle that emerged from these trials is there was no moral or legal defense in claiming “I was just following orders.” If there were any way you could refuse and survive, then obedience to inhumane orders was itself a crime.

It is time for US Immigration and Enforcement (ICE) agents to understand and act on this principle. There will be no sympathy for those who followed orders to separate toddlers from their mothers, and for obeying orders to not touch or attempt to comfort a traumatized child.

ICE agents can individually or collectively refuse to execute these orders. Will there be penalties for disobedience? Probably. But they will be short lived, whereas the guilt and stigma of obeying those orders will last a lifetime.

In his famous experiments on obedience, Stanley Milgram observed that subjects went through four stages as they realized the potential harm they were causing by obeying harmful orders. First they cooperated, as it seemed the order served a reasonable social purpose. Second ,they began questioning the order when they realized that following it might be inflicting harm. Third, they experienced severe psychological stress over whether to obey the authority or to follow their conscience. Fourth, they had to resolve the severe stress and could do so in one of two ways: they could stop resisting the authority and just do what they were told, or they could refuse to continue to obey the authority. Only the latter choice freed them from ethical culpability.

ICE agents need to understand that resolving their discomfort by simply obeying orders to implement the inhumane policy does not relieve them of moral guilt. Their moment of truth is now. Will they claim “I was just following orders” and thereby align themselves with historic crimes done with this justification, or will they say “no” and live the rest of their lives justly proud of the integrity they displayed?

For those of us who are not on the front lines needing to make this choice, we can and should be contributing funds to the support of those agents who may lose their paychecks or who incur legal fees to defend their stance. And when the dust settles on this morally repugnant chapter of our history, any remaining funds can be used to erect plaques and award medals to those who courageously disobeyed on principle. They will be remembered and honored.

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