It is impossible to open a newspaper any day without being disturbed by the “news.” It may be the report of an earthquake, a flood or some other disaster. Those which disturb us most are the tragedies caused by deliberate and hateful human action. The most recent, of course, is the air crash in Scotland.
But the item of news which disturbed me more than any in recent months was not an air, sea or land disaster. No! It was report of something which was said at the trial of Police Officer David Packer on December 9, 1988. According to a report in the Globe and Mail issue of December 12, Staff Inspector John Addison informed the court that officers do not have the right to disobey orders which conflict with their consciences. Here are his words as reported. “When the day comes we police this City along lines of conscience we will have anarchy. It is not practical to act on a basis of conscience.” This, in my opinion, is a statement the implications of which are nothing less than terrifying. The response of Officer Packer’s lawyer, Harry Black, was admirable. He said, “The idea that a policeman leaves his conscience at the door is not realistic.” I would go further and say that the principle of which Inspector Addison’s statement is based is totally immoral. It is the exact same philosophy on which the Nazis based their nefarious activities that led to the murder of millions of innocent human beings! If the Toronto Police Force is not governed by conscience, one must ask, “On what principles is it run?” Are the police officers who patrol our streets reduced to a bunch of wimps who do what they are told by a superior officer irrespective of the morality of the actions?
The Nuremberg Trials
Here is a quote from the Encyclopedia Britannica (1976, Ed., Vol. 19, p. 540). “A commanding officer is required to take all possible measures to prevent violations of the laws of war by his troops; otherwise, he is held to be accountable for such violations, even though he was unaware of their commission. He is, of course, criminally responsible if he actually orders illegal actions. The subordinate who carries out an order that he knows to be criminal or which is clearly so, is guilty of a war crime and the claim that he was only following orders does not constitute a defense of such violations of the laws of war.” This was the principle appealed to the trial of the Nazi criminals by the International Court of Justice at Nuremberg in 1946. The heading of this particular section reads, “Foundations of the Laws of War, the maintenance of civilized standards.” If civilized standards are demanded even the heat of the battle, surely they should have at least equal force on the streets of a city during peace. Or do “civilized standards” cease to apply during times of halcyon tranquility? If Inspector Addison’s statement is correct, apparently they do – at least in the case of the Toronto Police Force.
An Award for Bravery
I could apply this principle to the case of Officer David Packer and I believe it would be valid. I could, for instance, point out that at the time David Packer refused to do duty outside the Morgentaler abortuary, the abortuary was illegal. Or I could refer to this glaring anomaly in the thinking of the Police Force. In 1984, Officer Packer was awarded a citation for his bravery in saving a mother and her baby from a burning apartment. The story briefly is this. David helped the mother from the flaming apartment. The lady was a deaf mute. But by signs she indicated that her baby was still in the upstairs room. David, at the risk of his life, re-entered the building and saved the baby. Two years later he is dismissed from the same police force because he refused, in his own words, “to guard a house in which babies are being killed!” But rather than apply this principle to that situation, I am simply taking the statement at its face value, “A police officer must obey the command of a superior officer even if the action would be immoral and against his conscience.”
I am sending a copy of this article to the Chief of Police and the Attorney General of Ontario, and asking both of them or one of them to enlighten us regarding the principles upon which police action is based. We would like to believe that the honorable motto, “To Serve and Protect” had some validity on the streets of our city.
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)
The question of conscience versus state authority is not a new one. It is as old as Moses. In the Book of Exodus we read how the Hebrew midwives defied the order of the Pharaoh of Egypt to kill all the men-children of the Jews. Pharaoh was both the governor and the chief of police! Then in the Book of Daniel we read how the prophet was cast into the den of lions because he would not obey the king and pray to a statue. Centuries later – the sixteenth – Sir Thomas More lost his head because he refused to sell his conscience to King Henry VIII. And in our own lifetime, Franz Jaegerstatter of Austria was executed because he would not sell his soul by joining the Nazi army.
Thoreau, the American writer, whose work “Civil Disobedience” Mahatma Ghandi took as the text book for his campaign of passive resistance in India, has some striking things to say about this question. Here is a long quotation, but I believe it is worth reading.
“The mass of men serve the State not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, the militia, jailers, constables, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense…they have the same sort of worth as horses and dogs. Yet, such as these politicians, lawyers, ministers and office holders serve the State chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God. A very few as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the State with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated by it as enemies.”
David Thoreau was speaking in defense of the freedom of the slaves in America at a time when “good man and women” owned slaves and treated them as beasts of burden – and all “within the law.” The principles he enunciates are more applicable surely today, when unborn human beings are treated as of less value than slaves and are not allowed the freedom of being born.
We need more men of the caliber of David Packer to bring the Toronto Police Force to its moral senses!