Sunday, February 16, 2014


“‘Once the rocket goes up, who cares where it comes down? That's not my department,’ said Werner von Braun.”
Tom Lehrer, “Werner von Braun”
After World War II, the United States brought a number of German scientists to the United States to work on weapons and the space program. In return for this, they were effectively forgiven their involvement in Nazi atrocities during the war, and it was hushed up. Recently a new book on the subject was released, and the author was interviewed on NPR. It's made fairly clear that several of them, like the famed Werner von Braun, were both high-ranking members of the Nazi party, and knew of (and were sometimes involved in) the Holocaust. The actions of the United States government to to conceal these histories are portrayed as a “deal with the Devil.” The overall current of moral outrage, or at least criticism, that runs through the interview struck me as somewhere between naïve and willfully ignorant.

When someone is arrested for a crime, it's not uncommon for the prosecutors to offer a plea bargain. At its heart, a plea bargain is a trade - lessened accountability before the law for some consideration, normally saving prosecutors the effort of proving one’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. And other trades are made as well, a very common one being a reduction of sentence (or at least the promise of a recommendation of same) or a lessening of charges in return for cooperation with an investigation or naming other people involved in crimes. Unsurprisingly, this has lead to a certain amount of deceit in the process.
Under federal law, the only way someone serving a mandatory minimum prison sentence can get out early is to provide information or testimony that is of “substantial assistance” to prosecutors. What constitutes “substantial assistance” is solely up to the judgment of prosecutors. Make the prosecutor happy, and you go home early. Tell him something that may well be true but doesn’t quite go far enough to win him an indictment or conviction, and you risk giving up a golden opportunity to cut your time. Critics say it’s a system that suborns outright lying.
Radley Balko, “Guilty Before Proven Innocent
Like Operation Paperclip, the use of jailhouse informants to testify against people is driven by fear. While Operation Paperclip was put in place to help combat the fear of falling behind in the arms race or the quest to reach the Moon, the willingness to give unreliable “witnesses” breaks on jail time (sometimes, quite significant) in return for “substantial assistance” is driven by the public's fear of crime and drugs.

When I was first taking courses in Project Management, one of the classes I had signed up for was one on Ethics. After class one day, I asked the instructor: “Can you ever be considered really ethical if you’re not willing to risk your job, and maybe the rest of your working life?” What followed was an uncomfortable silence and an unspoken agreement. We both knew that the answer was, quite likely: “No.” But we also both knew that it was, quite likely, an untenable trade-off.

One of the lessons that we learn growing up that turns out not to be exactly true is that being held accountable only has costs to the suspected miscreant. When our parents told us that: “This is going to hurt me as much as it’s going to hurt you,” before dishing out a punishment, we rarely, if ever believed them. But the costs of holding someone accountable can, and sometimes do, go beyond the person themselves. And that creates an incentive to buy our way out of the consequences of accountability by releasing others from the same.

A commitment to Justice that begins and ends only with other people “Getting what they deserve” is always going to come up short, because there is no form of Justice that we can create today that lacks costs that the people seeking justice will be called upon to pay. It’s easy to look back on America of the mid-to-late 1940s, and decide that they’d overestimated the risks of sending Mr. von Braun to the gallows at Nuremberg, or to sneer at Louisiana’s law-enforcement community for being willing to send innocent people to prison to demonstrate their commitment to the War on Drugs. But it’s also dangerous. Bad ideas are not universally, or even commonly, the result of people being stupid, credulous or deliberately unethical. Often, they’re the result of being hard-eyed and coldly rational. The willingness to rationalize, like many other “failings,” preys on those who think they are above it.

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