Friday, June 8, 2018

The Lines We Draw

Sometimes, especially at work, it's hard to know what you really have to do and what you don't, or shouldn't. You have to think about where your personal sense of ethics begins and ends and what you can live with. That line is unique to each of us, for different reasons. Each of us has to make a living and has bills to pay. Each of us grew up differently with different values. This is true whether you work in retail, a corporate office or government. 

But it's even more true in government, because a job in government differs in some critical respects from private sector work.

I've spent my whole career working in government--city, state, and federal--at various times and various levels as an investigator, an intern, a judicial clerk, a lawyer. A job in government comes with a different set of concerns, gravitas and responsibility. You are working for more than a paycheck. You are part of the social compact and are executing it on behalf of your fellow citizens. Under the imprimatur of the State, you are entrusted with enormous authority and responsibility--and crucially--a presumptive legitimacy. 

And in America, your ultimate fidelity as a government employee is to the United States Constitution and the principles that it stands for. 

It's the presumptive legitimacy of government that is the most difficult to reckon with. That's because government is hierarchical and composed at the highest levels of politicians, and politicians come and go. Some understand the norms of government better than others, and some are by turns more well-meaning or more self-serving, but the thing that never changes, or hopefully never changes, is what you can live with as a human being. 

At times over the past 20 years, I've had to ask myself if I can put my name on something, or follow a particular directive, and sometimes the answer has been no for one reason or another. It's inevitable that you will confront these moments.

I think about this when I think about the men and women in uniform who are going to work every day and implementing the inhumane policies of the Trump administration and Jeff Sessions. These are just people with jobs, in a uniform. They have kids' soccer games and utility bills and stream Netflix and eat Cheerios or whatever. But they are showing up to work every day and committing human rights abuses because they have justified this conduct to themselves and because they are being told to do it and that it is right.

Do you really think every SS soldier in Nazi Germany thought what they were doing was bad? Do you think they thought they were evil? Or sociopaths? Were they evil? Were they sociopaths? By and large, surely not. They were just regular government employees "following orders." They were working for the integrity of their country and their nation's borders. Everything they did was legal. Everything they did was in response to an order. Everything they did had a reason, a justification.

But those reasons and justifications were delivered, in the end, by a sociopathic, genocidal dictator not appreciably different--at least in fundamental personality features--from the man ultimately responsible for what ICE is doing to children and families right now, in America, as I write this.

These are the questions and the reality that people who are now working under the banner of this agency need to step back and confront: Is this right or wrong? Can I live with myself? Does this conduct objectively shock the conscience? 

Those questions are more critical than any order or directive or policy. At the end of the day, you have to answer to yourself, and only yourself. And I have to hope that the human beings carrying out these orders know deep down how wrong they really are, and that they will act accordingly. 

The lives of thousands of children and our reputation and integrity as a beacon of freedom and a a constitutional democracy depend on individuals one at a time, saying one word, and acting on it.


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