The BBC reports that several federal police officers in Ciudad Juarez have arrested their own commander on grounds of corruption and racketeering. On the heels of the Wikileaks case and in the midst of two ongoing wars, it is worth considering the moral role of the individual in security-related institutions like the military and police.
Millennia of human experience demonstrate that discipline and professionalism distinguish effective security forces. Such forces can do tremendous good. But institutions are fallible. The uncertainties of both violent conflict and day-to-day human life also provide endless opportunities for rigid adherence to orders to cause grievous harm. When is it appropriate for those who are vested with the protection of a society to disobey orders and even turn on their superiors?
Hindsight always allows us to judge actions on their consequences. But how do we assess disobedience in the moment of decision?
PFC Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army analyst suspected of leaking sensitive documents about the war in
Afghanistan, is various
ly called a hero and a traitor. Soviet officer Stanislav Petrov likely averted nuclear war by deviating from standard protocol, but, had he been wrong, could have allowed his country to be defeated by a U.S. nuclear attack. His case illustrates just how delicate questions of automatic deference and obedience can be in an age of nuclear weapons.
The Nuremberg Trials made it clear that “I was just obeying orders” provides inadequate moral cover for heinous crimes. But what about actions whose morality is, at the time, unclear? And compared to private citizens, is an individual following orders morally less culpable?
Image by Flickr user Jesus Villaseca Perez used under a Creative Commons Attribution License