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

Originally published on January 6, 2018.

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 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 country’s 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.

The Tenchant Observer

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