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Posted on June 19, 2018 at 3:49 AM

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

In 1996, Daniel Goldhagen published Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, where he argued that most Germans were complicit in the Holocaust because anti-Semitism was a key part of national identity. By knowing about the genocide and going along with things (or trying to stay safe and out of trouble), the average citizen allowed the Holocaust to happen.

The same seems to be happening today. Most major medical societiesand even a large number of bioethicists have come outagainst the U.S. government policy of separating children from parents at the border who are trying to escape violence and poverty in their home countries, and then interning the children in cages and tent camps. This is a horrid policy that violates all moral norms, causes lasting harm to children and families, and probably (as someone who is not an attorney, I cannot give a legal opinion) human rights law.

Goldhagen points to a long history of German anti-Semitism being part of the national culture as a key element of why so many went along with the genocide. Similarly, the U.S. has a long history of anti-immigrantbias. As far back as 1751 (decades before there was a United States), Benjamin Franklin wrote about the dangers to the colonies of German immigration. Even Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant, was concerned about too many foreigners being naturalized in the new nation. Since our founding, those in the U.S. mainstream have blamed problems on the most recent, and numerous, immigrant group.

While the executive branch has given this order, designated what would happen, and defended this policy, they are not the ones pulling children from the arms of their parents. Nor are our elected officials the ones shoving children into cages and locking the doors. They are not the ones herding children onto planes nor are they the commercial carriers transporting these children to internment centers. The hands that do this dirty work are not in halls of power of Washington DC, but rather are the people who work for the Border Patrol, Homeland Security and other institutions that carry out these order. These are people who are just “doing their jobs.”

Where have we heard that refrain before? In the Nuremburg Trials where “I was just following orders” was a common defense. That excused failed then and it should fail now. If all those carrying out these “orders” just stopped then children would not be traumatized and families would not be torn apart. The reason this is happening is more than a horrid policy statement, it is that everyday people are “following orders.”

Just “doing the job” in cases where one is violating human rights may in itself be a human rights crime. These actions violate the Geneva Convention and the International Declaration of Human Rights. A soldier is required to disobey an illegal order. Although Homeland Security agents may not be military personnel, the principle remains the same: An illegal, immoral order should be ignored. If we all ignored these orders, then we would not hear the cries of children being pulled from their mothers and fathers and we would not see children in cages because it would not be happening. The hands doing these deeds are Trump’s willing executioners.

Part of the problem, of course, is that soldiers and police-related officers are not trained in moral courage or to disobey any order. In fact, they are trained quite explicitly to follow all orders without question. I have written about the lack of training in moral courage and disobeying immoral orders in the realm of medicine previously. Perhaps the problem goes back further than that.

While recently visiting with a friend, she told me of her theory that most people cease their religious education with their final act in their faith such as bar/bat mitzvah in Judaism or confirmation in Catholicism. She believes that after that time, most people walk away (sometimes forever, sometimes until marriage or having children), and for most of us our study and religious development stops around age 15. Although I strongly believe in secular ethics and that a moral life can be found outside of religion, is it possible that in parallel, for most people, their ethical development ceases around the same age? Are these evils happening because as a society, we do not have formal ethics education for all? Those of us in bioethics teach in medical schools and baccalaureate programs, but what about in high school or earlier? Ethics is often left to the unspoken curriculum—parents talking to their children and correcting behavior. Schools establishing codes of conduct and enforcing rules that make it clear when someone has strayed over the line (or not enforcing for particular people which gives messages of privilege). How many people have formal courses in philosophical ethics and morality?  How many people who are not philosophy majors or bioethics students struggle with these difficult topics?

My hope with this post is two-fold: (1) I call on all the hands physically separating families and locking up children to simply stop: It is your moral and ethical duty to not perpetuate human rights violations. For the airlines flying these children away from the families—don’t. While the old adage holds that evil flourishes when good people do nothing; in this case doing nothing (instead of following these orders) is what good people should do.

And (2) I call for greater lifelong ethics training (not religious training) to help us build moral courage, to appreciate those who are different from us, to construct and criticize arguments, and to have civil conversations that strengthen us all.

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