Just Following Orders

by Todd Hayen, PhD, RP | Jun 10, 2024

Remember My Lai? The primary thrust of the defense of Lt. William Calley (who was the only soldier in the trial of 26 that was convicted) was the age-old military “get out of jail free” tactic: “I was only following orders.” (Which in today’s modern legal system no longer holds water.) Adolf Eichmann, tried in Israel for crimes against the Jewish people (and humanity) during the German Nazi holocaust, and was subsequently hung for his crimes, said, “I had orders. Whether people were killed or not, orders had to be executed.”

Hannah Arendt, who wrote The Banality of Evil after attending Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem, suggested that the root of evil was the inability to think. “Following orders” was therefore an excuse for evil action when the evil action had not even been subjected to thought:

If, as I suggested before, the ability to tell right from wrong should turn out to have anything to do with the ability to think, then we must be able to “demand” its exercise from every sane person, no matter how erudite or ignorant, intelligent or stupid, he may happen to be.

“Following orders” in the above military examples carries a heightened intensity due to the context of their individual situations: In My Lai, hundreds of civilian Vietnamese were senselessly murdered, in Eichmann’s Nazi stupor, untold millions died due to his loyalty to Adolf Hitler (according to Eichmann, he took no personal responsibility).

These events in history, as well as many similar events lost to time, illustrate the results of Arendt’s lack of “thinking.” But are the results of such “banality of character” always direct and obvious? Eichmann claims he never killed a single person. Calley, of course, was directly involved with the murder of his victims, and probably driven temporarily insane by the fervour of the moment. But what about how Arendt’s banality of evil shows up in everyday life? What of the blindness to evil we experience every day, with ordinary people—ordinary people who are simply following the orders of society, of government leaders, of public health officials, and of the AMA or the CDC?

Physicians who pushed the killer vaccine for Covid 19 onto hapless patients can always claim they were “following orders.” Medical practitioners are merely soldiers in an army with a military-style command—“The Standard of Care” as dictated by the AMA, the CDC, the NAIAD, and the FDA (in the United States). Doctors do not “have the time” to rely on their own research, their own consciousness, or their own critical thinking. As Arendt would probably suggest, they are incapable of critical thinking, and just carry on with their craft as dictated by the higher authority they are loyal to. If you have ever known a maverick doctor who does not have this sort of blind acquiescence to a “higher” corporate, authoritarian, power, you will see an example of a person who indeed does “think.” (I’ve known a few such doctors, few of them are still practicing medicine.)

But what of “ordinary” people? I have seen client after client in my practice who are “ordinary” people. Most of the ones I will use here as examples are professional, and financially successful people with a solid place in society. They could be doctors, lawyers, dentists, business owners, teachers, accountants, or any of a variety of positions and occupations considered culturally “mainstream.” These people are what we typically call “law-abiding.” They understand, believe in, and respect what society calls for to maintain an “upstanding” position in the community. Everything works well in their world, they are complimented for their adherence to the status quo. None of them want to be labeled “trouble maker” or “radical.”

They follow the laws, wear seatbelts, go the speed limit (well, in Canada, it is perfectly fine to go about 10% above the posted speed), pay their taxes, and certainly, they do not steal, rob, kill, rape, take illegal drugs, or participate in any sort of grossly illegal (and thus evil) activities. Who tells them what these laws and limitations are? The government does, of course. The “lawmakers” in Congress, or Parliament. Duly elected individuals whom they trust. And the ordinary law-abiding, upstanding citizens, follow their orders. It is what we are all supposed to do. Not only for our own protection, but for the protection of others, our fellow citizens.

They do not question. They do not think. And if their adherence to the laws of the land causes destruction—loss of life or liberties—they do not care. “I had orders. Whether people were killed or not, orders had to be executed,” (Eichmann). The most common behaviour is to not correlate their “unthinking obedience” with any negative result. The agenda makes great effort to keep this dot connecting from taking place with censorship, punishment to whistleblowers, and the like. But I suspect even if the “order followers” knew, they would excuse it and rationalize their behaviour in some way. “We are a society, we have to stay coherent and together. We can’t sustain a culture without laws and authority.” So they think.

Who was it who said, “If a law is unjust, it is our duty to disobey it.” And I am not even talking about breaking laws. Nothing we have faced over the past few years that has infringed on our rights and freedoms have been laws. The vaccine mandates were not laws, nor were the rules around business closures, or social distancing, or restrictions on gatherings. They sure were treated like laws with citations and official reprimands handed out for ignoring them. But I do not believe any of them were actually legislated into laws. There were rules, and coercions with huge penalties for disregarding them—but no one needed to break a law to push against an unfair society—yet.

But people generally did nothing. To be upstanding you do nothing, you don’t complain, you don’t make waves, and you don’t think.

Since early school years we have been taught that being a rebel is a bad thing. So no one wishes to be one of those malcontent high school kids who skipped class and smoked in the bathroom—at least not the upstanding kids wanted that, the honour roll kids, the ones poised to be beneficial members of the community.

It is ironic that nearly every great societal accomplishment in history has been born out of revolution. Both governmentally as well as in science, art and literature. Progress has always been revolutionary. And yet we have been indoctrinated to abhor moving contrary to the status quo. We have been brainwashed that following orders is the norm, and the way of the good citizen. It makes no matter if our actions, or inactions, end up hurting or killing people. As Eichmann said, “orders had to be executed.” His “following orders” defense did not work for him, though. He was hung for it.

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9 days ago

Hanged, not hung.

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