I know the Nuremberg defense when I hear it, and this is the Nuremberg defense.
The release of a January security video from a Seattle transit station has triggered a public uproar, and no wonder: it shows a group of girls brutally beating a young woman, including kicks to her head, as three security guards stand by, watching, doing nothing. Well, not exactly nothing: they did call for help.
Gee, thanks, guys. Would you tell them to bring some aspirin, an ice pack and a stretcher while you’re at it?
Seattle officials say that the guards appear to have done their job properly. The training manual the guards follow says “Never become involved in enforcement actions.”
The Nuremberg defense, that’s all it is. “We were just following orders.” I’ll concede this: standing by and letting a human being get beaten when you could intervene is better than doing the beating yourself because you were told to, but not much. In both cases, the one “following orders” is breaching the basic human obligation to prevent harm to another when it is within his or her power to do so. This was no less an outrage than the two Brooklyn EMT’s who let a pregnant woman die in front of them while they munched bagels on a break. (They are, by the way, back at work and on the job, whatever their version of “the job” may be.)
I know about liability. I know about possible danger. I know it’s a recession, and jobs are scarce. None of this excuses standing by and letting someone get stomped and kicked within an inch of her life. No respectable ethical system supports such a lack of kindness, empathy and responsibility. From the elegant simplicity of Reciprocity and the Golden Rule, to the most pragmatic balancing principles of Utilitarianism, to any rationale definition of duty, three security guards must take active measures to stop an attack on a helpless human. Would they follow their manual if a small child was being beaten by older children? If a young girl was being raped? Is there anything that would shock them into thinking, “The hell with my training: if I stand by and let this happen, I might as well be an accessory to the crime”? Kitty Genovese’s neighbors shut their windows against her screams for help, but every one of them was less culpable than the Seattle security guards, who were on the scene, who were public employees, whose yellow vests announced to the victim that they were there to ensure her safety,
Employees need rules, and society needs citizens who know when the rules don’t make sense, when following them is wrong, and when decency and common sense demands that they be broken. In particular, society needs such employees in the jobs that involve protecting the public. The public trusts them, you see. It trusts them to help, not “just follow orders.”
In her statement to the authorities, the girl who was beaten said she felt threatened by a group of teens in a shopping area above the tunnel. She said she warned three guards that she was in danger. “I thought that the security guards would defend me,” she said.
They should have. It was their ethical duty, and the combination of a training manual and the Nuremberg defense is just not an acceptable explanation for why they didn’t.