Before diving into this month’s topic, I want to thank those who responded to my query in last month’s edition of WTJTM. I asked IHS students to give me a good reason for why an image of a cartoon blue bra would not be considered school appropriate, and I was not disappointed. Scott Smith ’18 wrote, “The blue color represents the Democratic party. I am literally shaking right now,” while Will Korb ’17 sent me a block of text long enough to warrant inclusion at the end of this article. Truly terrifying. It’s students like Smith and Korb who make me grateful for our hardworking administrators. Now for this month’s installment of WTJTM:
During the editing process of an Opinion article I wrote for the October issue, entitled “Why I’ll Never Spend Another Penny At Regal Cinemas,” a friend of mine was quick to criticize my hostility towards the theater staff, reminding me that they were “just doing their job.” Not surprisingly, when it comes to an angry teenager trying to get their friend into an R-rated movie, this excuse pretty much exonerates the staff of any moral wrongdoing. This excuse comes up all the time, whenever I’m angry at police officers, school administrators, or yes, Regal Cinemas staff. My fear, however, is that this excuse can be overused. In our society, the point at which “just doing your job” doesn’t cut it in terms of responsibility is incredibly ill-defined, with problematic consequences. For the sake of brevity, I will be referring to this type of excuse as a DYJ (doing your job) excuse, and when I talk about responsibility, I am defaulting to moral responsibility (i.e. whether an action reflects that you are in some way a better or worse person).
Firstly, I want to make it very clear that the DYJ excuse is universally considered to be invalid in certain cases. To go to the extreme, murdering innocent people is immoral, even if it is your job. The Nazi death camp worker, replaceable as they may have been, can be seen as a worse person for every Jew, Russian, or homosexual they killed, even if said worker had a family to feed or depended on the income. This observation in no way, shape, or form is trying to compare a ticket vendor to a Nazi, but rather serves to prove that at some point, an action can be bad enough that DYJ isn’t going to exonerate you of guilt.
The problem, however, comes in the grey area leading up to genocide. By nature of a grey area, and this column itself, my next claim is going to be controversial. I felt very strongly, and still feel, that when Trump announced his travel ban that barred green card and visa holders from various Muslim countries from entering the U.S., the individual enforcement agents involved participated in actions that are too immoral to be covered by the DYJ excuse. When you force someone to go back to a country where they’ve given up their home, their job, their life—a country where in many cases they have literally nothing—that action is not justifiable. When you tell an Iraqi who risked their life for the U.S. in war that they have to go back to Iraq, even when they explain to you that they face a real possibility of being killed in their “home” country (many immigrants coming from the banned countries sought asylum, and were fleeing a very serious risk of death), I could not possibly care less that you were doing your job. When you leave an innocent person to die, you’re a Bad Person, and having the president on your side doesn’t do a single iota to change that. And I am referring to every ICE agent responsible for carrying out Trump’s orders, even if their individual contributions may have only affected the lives of a handful of people.
Now all of this is just my opinion, and nothing more than that—this is a rare case where I am not trying to get you to agree with me at all. The point here is rather that actions that most Americans accepted, actions that government officials lost no sleep over and for which they felt no guilt, can reasonably be argued to be past the point of just doing your job, at least under a certain set of moral values. From my perspective, those law-enforcement officers had a moral obligation to disobey orders over actively participating in ruining both the lives of many immigrants and the reputation of the United States.
The problem here is that there is no line—the cases where we can point to an action and definitively say it was wrong are exceedingly scarce. Nuance is a great thing, and as a debater I will be the first to argue that the world isn’t black and white. But in this case, a grey area equates to a race to the bottom. Unless society takes a unified stance on moral responsibility, those taking orders will justify doing horrible things to other people. My fear is not just that immigration officials will do pernicious things, but that they will find it easy to do them, feeling no shame or societal pressure to do the right thing because of how easy it is for them to tell themselves that they are just doing their job. This narrative limits dissent unless it literally comes to genocide, the only place people seem to have a consensus on where the line has been passed. The fact, however, is that there are actions that are very bad that are still not quite genocide level, that society should still discourage even in the context of doing one’s job.
Protest should be focused not only at legislators, but also at individual actors. We need our law-enforcement officers to be as brave as someone like Sally Yates, who refused to defend Trump’s policy and lost her job as a result.
Americans love to say “never again” when faced with tragedy. “Never again” were the words uttered by politicians after the Holocaust. Certainly, witnessing such horrific action would change our culture, would prompt action in the face of such cruelty if it were to ever appear again. “Never again,” they said, as a third of Cambodia was murdered. “Never again,” they said, as 30,000 lost their lives in Bosnia. When a million died in Rwanda, the tone remained the same. And with ISIS working to kill off every Yazidi in Syria, most Americans still can’t tell you what a Yazidi even is. The human capacity for evil is something we love to ignore. It’s easy to think that it wouldn’t be me, that our country is somehow different, that our citizens are more morally righteous or that our government is infallible. But time and time again we learn that this is not the case—that people will violate every moral limit they have when given just a tiny push.
Accountability means recognizing that doing your job isn’t an excuse. It means understanding the impacts of your actions and weighing them fairly, not suppressing guilt under the umbrella of “doing one’s job.” It means protesting not just the policy, but the individuals responsible for carrying it out. Because without individual accountability, there is no protection from an overreaching and dangerous government.