“When Socrates, with four others, was commanded to arrest an honest citizen, Leon of Salamis, he sturdily refused to carry out the tyrants’ bidding.”—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
“I was just following orders”—the notorious Nuremberg defense—has become an essential part of our culture’s moral vocabulary; it’s a phrase that’s tied up with so much of the evils of the modern world. When we hear the bad guy in a Hollywood movie say “I was just following orders,” an abyss opens up before us and we feel something strangely akin to vertigo. But there’s another phrase—also a central part of our culture’s moral vocabulary—which has precisely the opposite effect: “I didn’t sign up for this.”
Think about that moment in X-Men Origins (2009) when Wolverine refuses to participate in the massacre of innocent civilians in Nigeria. What does he say? “I didn’t sign up for this.” Think about that moment in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) when CIA Deputy Director Pamela Landy decides to leak all of the Blackbriar files to the media. What does she say? “I didn’t sign up for this.” Think about that moment in Clear and Present Danger (1994) when Jack Ryan (played by Harrison Ford) decides to blow the whistle on the President’s covert war in Latin America. What does he say? “I didn’t sign up for this.” Think about that moment in Avatar (2009) when Trudy Chacon refuses to open fire on the native people of Pandora. What does she say? “I didn’t sign up for this shit!”
When we hear someone say “I didn’t sign up for this” it ignites our moral emotions and we experience something profoundly physiological, something which the psychologist Jonathan Haidt has dubbed “elevation”. You get chills, a tingling sensation; your chest expands, as if with fresh air; and your eyes well up with tears. “I didn’t sign up for this”—it’s a beautiful phrase which signals that delightful moment when an individual decides to stop hiding behind the modern machine and take responsibility for their actions—viz., it signals that magical moment when a person decides to do the right thing.
At least two police officers have turned in their badges in Standing Rock. When this fight comes to us, when they come for our river, I hope all of my former students, all of those graduates of John Abbott College’s Police Tech Program, who now work for the Montreal Police Department, the SQ, and the RCMP, manifest the same kind of moral clarity and courage. Loyalty is important, extremely important, especially when you work in a dangerous, high-stakes field like law enforcement. But remember, sometimes loyalty to the badge, and loyalty to your brothers and sisters in blue, means disobeying evil orders that undermine the prestige of the profession, tarnish your department’s reputation, and make it hard for you to look your former teacher in the eye when you run into him on the street.
—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)