In Christopher Buckley's Thank You for Smoking, the main character, Nick Naylor, is a tobacco lobbyist. As his job pushes him to ever deeper levels of moral depravity, he repeatedly states, half-ironically, that he claims the Nuremberg defense: at the end of the day, he is "only following orders." After all, he, like everybody else, has to clothe his family, pay his mortgage, and put food on the table. If these responsibilities mean that his moral sense sometimes has to take a back seat, then such is life.
The trouble, of course, is that the Nuremberg defense didn't even work at Nuremberg, although it did inspire the U.S. military to state that its soldiers are allowed to refuse unlawful orders. This is particularly important as the mortgage crisis heats up. Over the next few months, more and more law enforcement officials will be called upon to evict people from their homes; some would argue (and, no doubt, will argue) that the rule of law and the economy require that evictions be carried out in a smooth and reliable manner. After all (as the reasoning goes) the stick of foreclosure and the carrot of a good credit score are necessary to force people to live up to their financial responsibilities. On the other hand, others will probably wonder if voters should be paying their law enforcement officials to be stormtroopers for a crumbling and poorly-run financial sector.
Tom Dart, Sheriff of Chicago's Cook County, recently took a stand on this issue, stating that his office will no longer "surprise tenants" with eviction orders. His argument is that landlords are often unable or unwilling to make mortgage payments, even though they are receiving rent. When this happens, the Sheriff's office is called in to forcibly evict innocent tenants. Dart claims that this is illegal, that the financial institutions are failing to perform their necessary due diligence, and that it exposes his office to legal liability. He notes that he has tried to institute reforms that would help him to connect renters to city social services and more strictly police banks, only to have these reforms blocked by financial lobbyists. In Dart's words, "We won't be doing the banks' work for them anymore." This may carry serious repercussions for Dart, who states that "I may be held in contempt of court over this [but] until the banking industry steps up and does the right thing, I won't continue to risk violating the law and open taxpayers to further liability."
It may seem odd to compare forcible evictions to the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, the Spanish Inquisition, or Cambodia's killing fields, yet every one of these tragedies was, in some level, the effect of a series of people who were all just following orders. I'm sure that, in the 1950's and '60's, there were law enforcement officials in the South who, while turning firehoses and German shepherds on protesters, found themselves wondering if they were still on the side of the angels. Luckily, while there will always be people who "just follow orders," there will also be the few who move beyond the strict boundaries of their jobs and find ways to maintain their humanity and morality. Here's hoping that Cook County will give Tom Dart the praise and support that he deserves!
Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. Once again, he's thanking his lucky stars that he didn't buy that house in Roanoke.
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