The Question of Individual Responsibility for the Actions of One’s Nation

Spirit of Jaspers, “The Question of Individual Responsibility for the Actions of One’s Nation, The Question 0f American Guilt, November 30, 2017 (reprinted woith permission).

The text of the original article follows:

The Question of Individual Responsibility for the Actions of One’s Nation

We Americans share a culture, a way of life, and a history built on our Constitution and a dedication to the rule of law.

Yet we also share responsibility for the actions of our government, of our president and political leaders, particularly those serving in the Senate and the House of Representatives whom we have elected. When they commit transgressions of our democratic political order, or kill innocent civilians in violation of the laws of war (humanitarian law) in foreign conflicts we also share responsibility for their and our government’s actions.

Is this a radical proposition? I think not, not if we reason carefully about what it means to live in a democracy, or to give full life to that democracy through our own thoughts, beliefs, and actions.

What are we to make then of politicians who approve of, or look the other way, when gross violations of our democratic order are committed, by our politicians, our legislators, and those who support them?

Does an individual citizen in the United States, or any country for that matter, incur any moral or other responsibility when he looks the other way when an injustice is committed, and does nothing to stop it? If the answer is “No”, in what sense can we be said to be a country that is governed by its citizens?

If we elect billionaires to run the country, and they then implement policies that sharply favor the rich and powerful, and all of that was likely or even evident before we cast our votes, are we absolved of moral responsibility for the outcome?

If we elect politicians who vote tax or health care laws that deny access to health care to millions of people, resulting in thousands of deaths, or take money from the poorest and give it to the very richest citizens in our country, are these actions the actions of the politicians, or are they our actions? Are we ourselves taking money from the poor and denying millions access to health care?

Much turns on our answers to these questions.

Yet let us take the inquiry a bit further. If our politicians tell big lies to the population about what they are doing, or if the president, for example, tells monstrous lies on a constant basis, and we do not speak out, are we complicit in his lies? Do we thereby incur moral responsibility? When the consequences of such big lies lead to sharp curtailment in spending for social services for the poor, or disrupt our fundamental sense of right and wrong, our fundamental moral values, or our very belief in the concept of truth, are we individually responsible for the actions and events which may follow? When the president dismisses serious news reporting, backed by solid sources, as “fake news”, and we do nothing, are we not individually responsible for the erosion of a culture of truth, and of expertise based on facts?

Are we then complicit then in the assault on the truth, or the very concept of truth itself? Without the concept and practice of telling the truth, of course, no government can be held accountable for its actions. A country can slide down the slippery slope that leads to authoritarianism and dictatorship, and the crimes a dictatorship might commit to maintain itself in power, to realize the misshapen ideals of a of government not based on the rule of law, not based on the concept of justice, and not even based on the concept of simple everyday fairness.

If that occurs, are individuals responsible in a moral sense? Are we responsible? Individually?

If America slides into dictatorship as Germany, one of the most educated and advanced industrial countries in the world at the time, did in the 1930s, will we then be responsible for the crimes our government may commit, as Germans after World War II were viewed by many as responsible, as guilty for the crimes of the Third Reich?

Germans in 1945 had to address The Question of German Guilt, the title of a book published in 1946 in German as Die Schuldfrage and in English translation in 1947.

Will Americans one day have to face The Question of American Guilt for the countryś slide into despotism, into a form of government where truth no longer holds our allegiance, where expert opinion based on analysis of the facts, the scientific facts, is no longer valued, where it is no longer possible to criticize the government, its leaders, or its actions?

Or have we always faced that question, and become what our answers did or did not provide as a path into the future, into freedom?

Amid the ruins of his country following World War II, he German philosopher Karl Jaspers, in The Question of German Guilt (1947). analyzed in rigorous detail the many evasions and excuses then commonly heard in Germany in response to charges of guilt for what had occurred. Near the end of the book, he also warned,

And yet, we are oppressed by one nightmarish idea: if a dictatorship in Hitler’s style should ever rise, in America, all hope would be lost for ages. We in Germany could be freed from the outside. Once a dictatorship has been established, no liberation from within is possible. Should the Anglo-Saxon world be dictatorially conquered from within, as we were, there would no longer be an outside, nor a liberation. The freedom fought for and won by Western man over hundreds, thousands of years would be a thing of the past. The primitiveness (crudeness) of despotism would reign again, but with all means of technology…

The German fate could provide all others with experience. If only they would understand this experience! We are no inferior race. Everywhere people have similar qualities. Everywhere there are violent, criminal, vitally capable minorities apt to seize the reins if occasion offers, and to proceed with brutality.[1]

[1] Karl Jaspers, The Question of German Guilt (A.B. Ashton transl.)(New York: Fordam University Press, 2000), p. 93.

Jaspers’ warning was unmistakably clear, and rings true 71 years later, today, as in 1946. The successful defense of democracy and the rule of law in the United States, or its failure, will have fateful consequences throughout the world, for centuries into the future.

Consequently, the moral responsibility of individual Americans to uphold the rule of law and the constitutional and democratic customs and forms of government we have built up over more than two centuries, is enormous. We must think beyond ourselves. We are called upon to remember the country’s deepest values, its greatest leaders, and the inspiring examples of those who built our democracy and whose legacy we are called upon to defend.

Americans are called upon to begin thinking today, if they have not already begun this journey, of The Question of American Guilt, and how their own actions may contribute to or impede the slide toward authoritarianism and the denial of truth which has already begun.

Spirit of Jaspers

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.