Judgment at C-Span

I saw an interesting film last night–Judgment at Nuremberg–In case you haven't seen it, you should.  As the title suggests, the film deals with the war crimes of the Nazis–but in particular the criminal complicity of lower level Nazi judges who participated in the legal machinations of the Nazi regime.

On a related theme, Kathleen Parker has found a new way to pass out moral responsibility in such situations.  If you think you're involved in a criminal regime (but are not yourself criminally responsible), then your saying nothing is worse, yes, worse, than the crimes you have witnessed being committed.  Speaking on C-Span, courtesy of Crooks and Liars, she says:

Parker: Oh wow that’s, you know I’ve met Scott and he is, comes across as just the sweetest, nicest fellow. I took great umbrage at this primarily because, whether the… you know, if… if he were… if he sat in those meetings where evidence was being trumped up and people are actually dying and never so much as cleared his throat or raised an eyebrow–which is what I’m told by everyone in the White House– then I think that he is guilty of something much greater than whatever he presents to the public in this book. You don’t sit there and listen to what you now consider lies and know… you walk out the door. An honorable man walks out the door. And you can go and call a press conference if you are the Press Secretary of the President of the United States. You can call a press conference. You can walk out and get a book contract that day, but you don’t sit through it for years and years and then say ‘well, I think I’ll go get a book contract and you know, present basically my notes that I’ve taken all these years knowing that these people were doing wrong.’ So I simply don’t trust a person like that.

That's novel.  The usual claim is that the person is complicit in the crimes, a silent accomplice perhaps.  Perhaps in an extreme case one might consider the person guilty of a serious crime, but no one could sustain the claim that his or her crime is worse than the original crime.  This would, after all, make the actual criminal less bad than the silent witness.

11 thoughts on “Judgment at C-Span”

  1. I’ve seen that movie and it’s a very good one. Probably the most memorable quote is right at the end of the movie (imdb.com):
    Ernst Janning: Judge Haywood… the reason I asked you to come: Those people, those millions of people… I never knew it would come to that. You *must* believe it, *You must* believe it!
    Judge Dan Haywood: Herr Janning, it “came to that” the *first time* you sentenced a man to death you *knew* to be innocent.”
    So, like you said the movie deals more with the “usual claim” of silent accomplice. But even the silent accomplice is not worse than the original crime. So, to argue that a silent witness’ crime is worst that the original crime is just ridiculous. I guess that in her opinion, all the silent witnesses of the Holocaust should be punished worst than the actual people that committed the crimes.
    Now that aside, questioning Scott’s timing might not be a bad question. It’s always a mystery to me how people that lack courage at a certain point, seem to a acquire it later in life. How does that happen? What changed? I think that’s where Parker wants to take us. She is over the top on purpose. She wants us to change the subject. It’s a suble form of the missing the point fallacy. The topic of her conversation it’s no longer the administration and the facts brought up by Scott. It is rather Scott.

    And to end on a better note, how about another quote from the movie:
    Col. Tad Lawson: One thing about Americans, we’re not cut out to be occupiers. We’re new at it and not very good at it. “

  2. It’s certainly novel to claim that it’s worse, but Singer makes the argument that it’s at least just as bad. Nevertheless, I think you might be able to support such an argument. Let’s say you are in charge of a large group of priests. You become aware that they are sexually abusing children. You do not turn them in or fire them or remove them from contact with children. Instead, you move them to another parish, where there is a good chance they will do it again. You continue this behavior for decades, though you never commit any such acts yourself. What’s worse, one act of one of the priests or the systematic abuse network that you foster which allows for more abuse to occur? I’m not saying the argument works, but I wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand.

  3. Interesting point Nevyn, but in your “hypothetical” the Bishop figure is working to cover up the crime.  Sometimes, indeed, the cover-up is worse than the crime.   The more appropriate analogy would be the person who knows but for one reason or another says nothing (but also does not actively contribute).

  4. To be a pain in the ass:

    First, it isn’t clear she isn’t saying that S.M is guilty of something much worse than what he admits in his book (I.e. I assume he has a bit of hand wringing in this book so that he doesn’t end up like Gonzalez). She seems to be saying that even if his account is true then his hand-wringing and weak admission of “guilt” or at least ignorance, seriously understates his moral failures (character and omissions).

    Second, even if we read it like you do. It seems like she is really trying to undermine his credibility as a witness. And her point seems well taken.  If as I understand it, he presents himself as a concerned observer to the decision making process, who recognized its moral problems, then we have good reason to ask whether this is plausible. We have nothing but his word for it. But it seems that if he claims this, then we should judge him to be deeply flawed in his moral character as Parker claims.

    So it’s a dilemma: “Hey Scott, either you’re a liar or a scumbag–take your pick.” (Well, that might be a little rough around the edges).

    Finally, even if these are not her point: don’t you think that she is guilty of hyperbole or sloppy speaking rather than bad moral theory?

  5. Seemed clear to me from the context and the rest of the passage that she was making that claim–about silence being worse than the crime.  See below for the rest of the passage.  In other matters, you’re certainly right about the legitimate questions about McClellan’s credibility and character.  But in the end I think I can have both the sloppy moral theory accusation  and the charge of silly hyperbole: Parker engages in a hyperbolic sophistry.

    Lamb: So he goes out there, and in this case, it would be somebody like Karl Rove, lies to him. And he says I’m…and he’s steaming about this. You talk about the rage involved. He sits there and says ‘Someday, I’m going to get back at these people.’

    Parker: Well that’s fine but you don’t do that while people, if people are going to be killed by your inaction.

    Lamb: How are people killed by his inaction?

    Parker: Because if he knows that something is wrong, then you have a duty to say so. (crosstalk) I mean we all respond, we all react and depend on the quality of the information and we make our decisions accordingly, so if you know that the administration is lying, and as a consequence of those lies, people are being killed in Iraq and American lives are being sacrificed, then you have a duty to say something, immediately. Not, not, not later, not to build your case of revenge. We can all understand that human emotion but I think the, the stakes are raised too high here for that kind of, that kind of biding one’s time.

  6. “The more appropriate analogy would be the person who knows but for one reason or another says nothing (but also does not actively contribute).”
    Oh I agree. But I don’t know if the parenthetical is ever realistic in these situations. I would guess that’s why murder convictions go the way they do. But let’s say it is. Let’s say Wile E. Coyote puts his barrel of TNT in a school yard and the trail of gun powder runs right in front of my shoes. I watch the flame go by instead of stepping on it and kabloom go the kiddies. This happens dozens of times and I just happen to be there each time with the same ability to avert the disaster, but do nothing. Is my inaction worse than Wile E.’s action? Is it not the first time but is the 50th or the 100th time? I don’t know the answer, but it’s tempting to say it is worse at some point.

  7. I don’t see the comparative claim between crime and complicity in the crime, even with the context. I think she’s just pointing out that he’s a weanie. (<–technical philosophical sense of the word).

  8. I suppose I read “than whatever he presents in his book” to refer to the stuff Bush et alia were up to.  Seems like there would be better ways to say what you suggest, perhaps: “he bears a larger share of the guilt than he suggests.”

  9. But, then wouldn’t that really mean that he is guiltier than if he had lied to the American public (oh wait, he did) and started a war and exposed Valerie Plame, etc., etc. “Hey Dennis Kucinich, change your bill to “Impeach Scott Mclellan””? That really would be scape-goating. Pile all the sins of 1.5 administrations on poor Scott McLellan’s head and drive him over a cliff.

    She can’t mean that, can she?

  10. I read “whatever he presents in the book” to be elliptical dropping the adverbial phrase below:

    “I think that he is guilty of something much greater than whatever he presents to the public in this book”


    “I think that he is guilty of something much greater than that which he presents (as his guilt) in this book.”

    You take “whatever he presents” to mean “Everything that he presents” I guess?

  11. That’s how I take it.  While that is an extremely loopy thing to say, I’m not at the moment ready to abandon it as an interpretation of Parker’s words.  There’s no preamble to that remark (even on the video–see the link) introducing the topic of things McClellan has admitted to.  And the rest of the passage focuses on the gravity of the things he supposedly knew were wrong (but about which he said nothing).

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