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 Online Community Lesson 

 

Paris Hilton and the Chain of Command

One afternoon last week, an acquaintance who graduated from Montebello High the same year as I did called the office about his immigration case.  As we chatted, he asked whether I had heard the news about Paris Hilton, namely, that she had been taken out of county jail and put under house arrest.  This fellow alumnus noted the gravity of Sheriff Lee Baca’s action in circumventing the authority of the court.  This acquaintance said that  the chain of command must not be broken. 

This led to an interesting exploration.  Is there ever an instance when the chain of command must be broken?  My answer is, without hesitation, “yes”.  I fuzzily recall (the operative word is “fuzzily”;  see the essay “From History to Hysteria” in this newsletter) that, at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals, the defense of “I was just following orders” was rejected at least in some instances. 

In our society, we accept that the chain of command must be broken when a command would lead to action which would shock the conscience.  Yet, we punish those who follow a command and those who disobey. 

In “Is Everyone ‘LOCO’?, Part 2”, we noted that that diverse situations continued to arise, and to expect teachers and peace officers to know what to do in all circumstances would be illogical.  (And if we agree that there is illogic here, yet continue doing what we are doing, are we not being hypocritical?) 

No matter what manual the armed forces might devise, unique situations will continue to arise.  Soldiers will have no guide as to what to do.  Yet, such unique situations cannot lead to hesitation by soldiers.  Hesitation is mortification.  On the other hand, if the soldiers take the wrong action—as determined in hindsight by a military board—they might be punished. 

Can there be a straightforward rule which not only cover soldiers, but, also, others who find themselves in a conundrum as to a course of action based on an order from above?  Perhaps, paralleling the conclusion in “The Eleventh Commandment”, the more harm which our action or inaction could do, the more discretion we must give a soldier or Sheriff Baca or somebody else down the chain of command in deciding on action or inaction.  An easily imagined situation would be a patrol on the streets of Baghdad pinned down by a sniper in an apartment building with many families.  Should a soldier obey a command to launch a rocket-propelled grenade, knowing that innocents might be killed?  Should the innocents have the obligation to leave the area or seek shelter as quickly as possible, knowing that a gun battle could not be confined to the combatants? 

Using the rule above, even the guards at Nazi concentration camps would have been guilty, as there was no harm to them from the prisoners whom they were guarding but whom they subsequently helped kill. 

Unfortunately, needed deliberation about action or inaction can be pre-empted by the conflagration of media sensationalism.  In other words, when we need to think about what to do, the media might take away that precious time by creating hysteria.  This might have happened with regard to Paris Hilton.         

If you answer the multiple-choice questions below and e-mail to lessonanswers@mymontebello.com with “Lesson answers” in the subject field, you will be credited toward a “certificate of recognition in community affairs” to be awarded in 2007 by a local nonprofit organization. 

1.  The chain of command in civilian or military life

(a) must never be questioned, lest lives be put at risk.

(b) cannot always be obeyed because of the lives put at risk by unquestioning obedience. 

2.  A key criterion for obedience to a chain of command is

(a) the harm which would ensue from obedience versus the harm which would ensue from disobedience.

(b) the severity of the possible punishment should a command not be obeyed. 

June 14, 2007

 

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