Prof. Ira Robbins gives without comment a quote attributed to Preet Bharara’s (then U.S. Attorney SDNY) 2014 Harvard Law school Commencement Speech:
Whether you are an associate, a law clerk, an assistant D.A., a public defender, or anything else. … [n]othing else matters but doing your job and doing it well. Every day. Even when it’s hard. Even when it’s tedious. Even when it’s dull. Even when the work seems small an beneath your brand-name schooling and God-given talent. It means being the guy who does his job…..
As a former public defender who, on more than one occasion, had a difference of opinion with how others defined what the term “doing my job well” meant, I understand commencement speeches are supposed to be broad statements to young minds to inspire them for the future. So my real problem with this kind of statement is that it utterly fails to take into account Hannah Arendt’s concept of banality of evil. While acts of evil can mushroom into monumental tragedies, the individual human perpetrators of those acts are often marked not with the grandiosity of the demonic but with absolute mundanity.
The “banality of evil” was a controversial point that Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975) made in 1962, when The New Yorker commissioned her, a Jew of who had narrowly escaped from Nazi Germany herself, to travel to Jerusalem and report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann — one of the chief architects of the Holocaust. In 1963, her writings about the trial were published as Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (public library) — a sobering reflection on “the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us — the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.”
Unfortunately, this is not the only instance Since the reunification of East and West Germany in 1990, the German government’ has tried over fifty former East German soldiers for shooting and killing East German citizens who attempted to escape across the East-West German border. John Tagliabue, Berlin Wall Guards Accused of Shooting Escapees, N.Y. TIMES, June 16, 1991, at 1, 6.
Whether the government gave explicit orders to- shoot escaping citizens has been a central issue of controversy in the border guard trials. Guards have claimed that, although they may have shot attempted escapees, they were only following orders. Marc Pitzke, East German Border Guards on Trial Viewed Defectors as “Pigs,” RUTERs NORTH AMERICAN WIRE, Sept. 4, 1991, available in LEXIS, Int-News Library, Arcnws File (quoting one of the defendant border guards in the first trial. The guard stated that “[we]were obliged to stop escape attempts by more than one person with the use of firearms.I only acted according to orders. I had absolutely no chance to treat this person any other way.”). Apparently, border guards were told that to do their job well, were infact given orders, that allowed shooting anyone escaping to the West. Tyler Marshall, Pitfalls in the Pursuit of Justice: The Case Against 4 Former East German Border Guards is Trying the Nation’s Legal System. Should a Democracy Judge Events that Occurred Under Communist Rule?, L.A. Tnms, Jan. 13, 1992, at Al.
Clearly the guards were doing their jobs well. With absolute banal actions they followed the orders given to them. How can you prosecute border guards for doing their jobs well? In fact, that was the defense many guards offered at their trials: we were doing our jobs well and simply following orders. Ex-Border Guards on Trial in Berlin, CH. TIB., Sept. 3, 1991, at 8 (citing argument that East German law outlawed escape from the G.D.R., and that East German leadership issued orders to enforce the law. As one border guard’s attorney stated,”[s]oldiers of the National People’s Army were simply fulfilling their duty to enforce the law at the time.”). The guards when on to say that doing the job well meant they were told not to think. The good guard who did his job well exercised no independent thought; rather, it demanded that they do what they were told. As one of the soldiers at the first trial testified: “We were soldiers–conscripts-who had to obey orders or face military prison.” Tamara Jones, E. German Guards on Trial: Can Justice Scale the Wall?, L.A. TIMES, Sept. 17, 1991, at Al.
In others, the border guards were defending their actions much like the police do today when forced to shoot a fleeing felon. David Margolick, “Just Following Orders’: Nuremberg, Now Berlin, N.Y. TIMES, Jan. 26, 1992, sec. 4, at 6. After all, is not fleeing felon an offender and danger to society as a whole so that strict enforcement of the law by police is the only way to guarantee the health and safety of the State?
Do your job well. Think about it.