I usually have some sympathy for people who are required by their employers to do distasteful things. I doubt, for example, that the customer service representatives at Cox Cable really enjoy wasting half an hour telling you to reboot your computer and router when they (and you) already know they are having a service outage. I doubt that credit card company operators really enjoy trying to up-sell some kind of useless debt protection service to everybody who calls. I try to give these folks the benefit of the doubt.
In these cases and others like them, I place most of the blame on the company that implemented the bad policies and procedures, not the individuals who dutifully perform the task they’ve been assigned. But this benefit of the doubt only goes so far; once you pass into illegal or immoral activity, ‘just following orders’ no longer passes as a valid excuse. Every individual has a personal responsibility to do the right thing in their dealings with others, even when their superiors order them to do the opposite. Maybe you risk being fired for making a moral stand. So be it. It is better to be unemployed with your honor intact than to debase yourself to keep a job.
I know taking this kind of a stand isn’t always easy. It seems like most people, when faced with these situations, take the path of least resistance and simply comply with the unjust orders. Understandably, they don’t want to deal with the loss of income, the hassle of finding a new job, and so on. I’ve seen it countless times. At one of my previous employers, questionable employment and contracting practices were commonplace. All up and down the chain of command, most people just shrugged their shoulders and did as they were told. Their willing compliance made them just as guilty as those at the top who issued the questionable orders in the first place.
This individual responsibility is even more acute when one is employed by federal, state, or local governments. Government employees answer to their chain of command just like private sector employees, yes, but in the end they also answer to the citizens who fall under that government’s jurisdiction. Every official act in-which they engage must be proper, moral, and open to public review and evaluation. Writing in 2005 about abuses of power in public schools I said, “[They are] public employees. In return for the job security and good benefits that come with government work, they take on a public trust. . . . Their failures and indiscretions are indeed public business, and should not be ignored or covered-up.”
At the federal level, this implicit truth—that public employees have an individual responsibility to the public—is made explicit. Upon entering the federal workforce, each individual civil servant swears their loyalty and allegiance to the Constitution of the United States and, by extension, to the source of its authorities as identified in its first seven words: “We the People of the United States. . . .”
I, [name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.
When a federal employee is faced with an order from their superiors, they must always square it with this promise before executing it. They must ensure that the orders they follow are compatible with their sworn allegiance to the Constitution, and with their promise to support and defend it against all enemies, foreign and domestic. They have willingly taken on a public trust, a solemn responsibility, and must conduct themselves accordingly—even if it ends up costing them their job. And when an individual bureaucrat fails to stand up against an unjust order from his superiors, when he ‘just follows orders,’ he takes personal responsibility for the consequences.
So I have very little sympathy for Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents. Every time they are caught taking nude photographs of travelers, feeling-up grannies’ genitals, harassing children, destroying property, and invading privacy in the name of national security, we hear the predictable refrain from TSA spokespeople and apologists: Don’t demonize TSA agents for doing their jobs; they’re just following official policies. Nonsense. They have been ordered by their superiors to violate the text and intent of the Fourth Amendment, and they, when faced with that order, obeyed it. They have violated their oath. They have betrayed the people and the system of laws they have sworn to serve. And they deserve every last bit of condemnation they receive for it.
If a TSA agent doesn’t want to be criticized for shredding the Fourth Amendment, he should refuse to do it. He should stand up for what’s right. He should state, unequivocally, that he cannot in good conscience violate his solemn obligation to support and defend the Constitution. Will he get fired for it? Given the government’s poor civil liberties record of-late, probably so. But his honor will be intact. Not to mention that if even thirty or forty percent of TSA agents had stood on principle in this way against the nude scanners and pat-down feel-ups, TSA officials would have been forced to eliminate them in favor of less objectionable (and more effective) security techniques.
In totalitarian states, agents of the government swear their allegiance to the dictator, king, or hierarchy. Pre-revolutionary civil servants in the American colonies swore to “bear true allegiance to His Majesty King George the Third.” Officers of the Soviet Red Army swore to “obey implicitly all Army regulations and orders of my commanders, commissars, and superiors.” Civil servants in Nazi Germany swore to “be faithful and obedient to the leader of the German empire and people, Adolf Hitler. . . .” Yet even in these cases, the civilized world has refused to accept individuals’ claims that they were ‘just following orders’ as a valid excuse for immoral and criminal behavior (cf., the Nuremberg Trials). Every individual makes his choices, and bears responsibility for them.
Here in the United States, we do not ask our civil servants to be blindly obedient to their superiors. No, we ask first-and-foremost for their allegiance to our federal, republican system of government as established by the U.S. Constitution. We ask them to promise to defend that system against all enemies, foreign and domestic—which would include enemies with official-sounding titles like ‘Administrator of the Transportation Security Administration’ and ‘Secretary of Homeland Security.’ They swear allegiance not to a charismatic leader or a chain of command, but to an ideal of limited government, the Bill of Rights, the enumerated powers, and the sovereignty of the people.
When push comes to shove, we want public servants who serve with conscience and discretion, not the jack-booted, obedient automatons that dictators are so fond of. Our civil service oath reflects this unique, American approach to governance. As such, ‘I was just following orders’ is an even emptier excuse here than it is elsewhere. Every Fourth Amendment violation in an airport security line is a moral failure of our government: a gross overstep of federal authority, and a violation of human rights and dignity. But each is also an individual moral failure: a wholly unjustified act of assault and depravity, and a violation of a civil servant’s solemn oath.
TSA agents can hide behind their uniforms, spout platitudes about duty, and complain that they’re just doing their job if that helps them sleep at night . . . but all the official stamps of approval in the world won’t turn an objective wrong into a right. And all the equivocation and evasion in the world won’t change the fact that each individual TSA agent who commits these acts is as guilty as those who made nude photography and random airport assaults an inexplicable part of our national security policy.
Can’t stand the criticism, men and women of the TSA? Then do what you promised. Defend the U.S. Constitution against its enemies. Refuse to comply with your superiors’ illegal orders. Refuse to subject travelers to nude photography and invasive pat-downs unless there is clear probable cause. As members of the civil service, this is the job we hired you to do. I know it’s hard. I know it’s risky. But it’s the right, honorable thing to do. Your sworn allegiance isn’t to your boss or your career, but to the U.S. Constitution and the people of the United States. Do the right thing.