In the first week of the new administration, Sally Yates, who was then our acting U.S. Attorney General, acted like a true hero when she said yes to her conscience, yes to the constitution and no to her boss. She set the high moral standard for what more and more government employees will be asked to do.
Although Ms. Yates was quickly fired (she already knew she would be replaced within the month), she was also quickly vindicated. She was proven right when within days various federal judges across the country agreed with her: The “orders” she had been given were deemed unconstitutional.
Her actions of refusal (resistance!) set a powerful example for what more and more government employees are now forced to do, from local police officers, immigration agents, teachers, welfare, and food inspection officers up through the ranks to cabinet political appointees.
Again: say yes to your conscience, yes to the constitution, no to the boss.
The international courts at Nuremberg, after World War II, made it plain: Our own conscience and our personal sense of human dignity and humanity always, always (always!) take precedence over orders from above, if those orders require us to engage in acts of human cruelty.
“We must say no to orders from above when those orders impinge on human dignity.”
“Orders from above” never justify the immoral, illegal or even questionable imposing of harm or abuse on fellow human beings. When the term “never forget” came out of the holocaust, what we were encouraged to never forget is this exact lesson: We can say no, we must say no to orders from above when those orders impinge on human decency.
Immigration officers at the NYC airport who refused to acknowledge a valid court order which temporarily suspended Trump’s Executive Order denying the rights of legal U.S. residents to return home were acting in a cowardly or at least ignorant manner. They were following the orders of their bosses, rather than their conscience or the law.
In an era when it seems that much executive policy—in spite of current laws or accepted precedent—springs from irrational fears, a sense of personal privilege and mean-spirited retribution, it is imperative for all of us to see quite clearly, quite simply this creed: If it violates the constitution and/or goes against our conscience, we are free to say no, we are obligated to say no, even if it’s our direct boss who demands our obedience. (Read Bear Gebhardt’s Gandolph Nuremberg Strategy for details.)
Again, the Nuremberg Trials established the international law that supports always acting according to our own conscience, and our own sense of the constitution, and particularly the Bill of Rights.
We each have the right and obligation to say no to unjust or inhumane orders from above. Such a “no” may cost us in the short run—as it did for Sally Yates. But in the long run, we’ll be standing on firm ground, having done the right thing.
As individuals, and as a society, saying “no” will ensure: never again.