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  • Reverend James Squire

The Nuremburg Defense and a Reasonable Person Standard

Updated: Feb 8, 2021


We have had numerous excuses why there has been excessive approaches by Police to citizens during this time of Black Lives Matter and Covid 19. One of the examples of this excessive use of force in Philadelphia was when police chased peaceful protesters off the I 676 and drove them up an embankment. During this police action there was the use of tear gas and beatings of the civilian population. One protestor was kneeling with her hands behind her back and was sprayed with tear gas directly into her face. It is now the end of June. This event happened weeks ago. The Mayor and Police Commissioner recently apologized for this overreach.

I was struck by the fact that one police officer said, “I was just doing what I was told!” We call this The Nuremburg Defense in Ethics. During the trial in Nuremburg a number of the Nazis who were being tried used this as their defense. “I was just doing what I was told.”

The problem with this defense is that you could indicate that you must do what the command chain tells you to do, but at what point does your ethical nature take over and stirs you to feel that what I am doing is wrong. It is obvious that the policeman who shot tear gas into the face of a kneeling woman who was vulnerable is not right by most standards of behavior. We call this the “reasonable person” response. If 12 neutral people saw that this is wrong, then it is wrong. When I would tell my father that I did something that was wrong because others were doing it, he simply said, “Would you jump off a roof if someone told you to do that?”

There is an exercise in Holocaust Education to demonstrate that people do what they do when an authority speaks. It is based on an experiment that was done by a high school teacher in 1967. A variation of this experiment addresses why the Nazis were able to do what they did with little or no corrective action from the German people. Simply stated a teacher enters a classroom. He then orders the students to be completely silent. He then states that the students must move from their classroom to another. This is repeated over and over and the students obediently do what they are told. After many moves to different classrooms a student or a small group of students will say, “Wait a minute. This is crazy! What’s going on?” The lesson learned is people respond to an authority figure, particularly if it is a person who they trust.

This is a central issue in the police and community lacking trust in one another which is the power leading to protests and police encounters. The police have had experiences where they were attacked by members of the community. The community has enough examples of police brutality to destroy trust there as well.

What I think is needed is ethical action where we balance “I was just doing what I was told.” with “the reasonable person standard.” This will demonstrate why there is so much division today. Notice that this will only be resolved by TRUST. You can have many bills going through Congress that emphasize proper behavior by police or protester but it will not resolve the issue until TRUST is established first. That will be done when each group has empathy for the other.

What is it like to be you? As policeman? As protestor? This is the mediation that is neede

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