|What Would You Do?|
|By Norman Boucher|
Traitor: The Whistleblower and the “American Taliban” by Jesselyn Radack ’92 (Whistleblower Press).
Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times by Eyal Press ’92 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
Have you ever been asked to be a “team player”? The phrase,
having made the leap from the sporting world to the corporate one, has
become a fundamental tenet of our work lives. After all, the success of
the institutions we serve depends on each of us knowing his or her
role. Communities require conformity.
The conflict between these cultural strains is at the heart of two new
and important books about people who turned their backs on their teams.
In Traitor: The Whistleblower and the “American Taliban”
attorney Jesselyn Radack ’92 describes the Kafkaesque turn her life
took when she blew the whistle at the U.S. Department of Justice soon
after 9/11 (described in the 2004 BAM cover story “The Woman Who Knew Too Much”).
On December 7, 2001, Radack, a Brown Phi Beta Kappa triple
concentrator, Yale Law School graduate, and career Justice Department
lawyer working in the ethics office, fielded a call from a terrorism
prosecutor who said that a U.S. citizen, John Walker Lindh, had been
captured among the Taliban in Afghanistan. The prosecutor explained
that the young man’s parents had hired a lawyer for him in California
and wanted to know whether or not the FBI could still legally question
Lindh. After consulting with her boss, Radack e-mailed the prosecutor
saying that the interrogation would be a “pre-indictment, custodial
overt interview” not “authorized by law” under those circumstances.
It’s an e-mail that still hangs over Radack’s life eleven years later.
As she describes in her book, Lindh’s interrogation went ahead anyway,
and she grew increasingly uneasy as prosecutors used information from
it to charge him with crimes punishable by death. When the Justice
Department continually insisted that Lindh’s rights had been
scrupulously protected, Radack anonymously leaked her e-mails to
Newsweek’s Michael Issikoff.
The framework of Traitor is a detailed narrative of
Radack’s personal story. Woven throughout is the author’s analysis of
what she sees as the federal government’s increasing abuse of citizens’
civil rights as a result of the War on Terror and, especially, its
aggressive pursuit of government whistleblowers. This pursuit, she
notes, is bipartisan. Despite campaign statements suggesting that his
administration would be more open than most, Barack Obama has
prosecuted more whistleblowers than any U.S. president before him.
As journalist Eyal Press ’92 makes clear in Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times,
this conflict between conforming and doing the right thing is
universal. He examines four individuals who dissent in the face of
enormous pressure to stick with the team. One is a Swiss police
superintendent who in 1938 saved the lives of hundreds and perhaps
thousands of Jews by disregarding an order sent to all superintendents
along the Swiss-German border to stop admitting Jews fleeing the Third
Reich. Another is a Serb who, when asked to pick out the Serbs from the
men rounded up in his town, also saved doomed Croatian men by
addressing them with Serbian names and setting them free. Press also
tells the stories of a member of an elite Israeli unit who refuses to
serve in the occupied territories and a financial worker for
Houston-based Stanford Group Company who blew the whistle on what
turned out to be the second-largest Ponzi scheme in U.S. history.
Press traveled to three continents to visit these four people or, in
the case of the Swiss superintendent, their descendants, and to
interview the men and women whose lives two of them saved. With the
possible exception of the Israeli soldier, what he finds are ordinary
people whom no one would have singled out as likely to perform heroic
acts. Press describes the Serb, for example, as a lazy man who spends
an inordinate amount of time watching sports on television. The
Stanford employee is an immigrant from El Salvador who worked hard to
achieve the American dream of a solid job in a reputable company, a
woman who in many ways was the perfect ambitious team player.
“For individuals caught up in the middle of an ethnic conflict or civil
war,” Press writes, “becoming an outlier requires seeing past the
interests of the community, or the group. For a broker at Stanford, it
required seeing past one’s own interests.”
Press points out that outliers are seldom hailed as heroes, but rather
are viewed with suspicion. The Swiss police superintendent, for
example, was fired for falsifying the papers of Jews to allow them to
enter Switzerland, and for the next forty-five years the Swiss
government refused to acknowledge his valor. Similarly, both Serbs and
Croatians mistrust the Serb who saved the lives of so many of his
So what motivates these people to act? Press never finds a satisfactory
answer, but he does conclude that a simple, unremarkable decency and
clarity are more likely characteristics than an overtly courageous
character or a noble ideology.
“It doesn’t take special hardwiring or saintly virtue to feel sympathy
for the people we might be harming by falling silent or going along,”
he writes. “It’s easy to judge soldiers at Abu Ghraib or bystanders
during World War II who failed to find their courage when
unconscionable things were happening before their eyes. It’s a lot
harder to acknowledge or even realize how often we avoid making
uncomfortable choices in the course of our daily lives by attributing
the small injustices that momentarily grate at our consciences to the
system, or the circumstances, or our superiors. Or how rarely we bother
to ask what role our own passivity and acquiescence may play in
enabling unconscionable things to be done in our name.”