“I was just following orders,” how often are those five words uttered in defense of crimes committed during both war and peace times. It’s a phrase everyone is familiar with, and one that has both let men go free and sentenced them to a life in prison. Despite the immediate attachment those words have with war crimes and acts of torture the situations that create them occur on an almost daily basis to everyone everywhere.
When children go to bed at nine, after brushing their teeth and preparing their bags for school the next day, they are in essence ‘just following orders.’ When a person hands their license and registration over to an officer that has pulled them over they are also ‘just following orders.’ When a gang initiate robs a corner store to prove his worth he is also ‘just following orders,’ but what about when the robbery goes a step further and becomes a homicide. Is he still ‘just following orders,’ or is he now acting according to his own free will?
This is where the power of situational factors come into play. At any given time there can be as few as half a dozen, or as many as hundreds. However, there are a few in particular that play a significant role in allowing people to ‘just follow orders.’ The first, and most universal is the need to belong, everyone has this need whether we acknowledge it or not we all want to belong to something and someone.
The desperate teenager joins the gang because of the need to belong to something bigger than himself, something bigger than the small home that holds too many people with too little resources. The child prepares for bed because of the need to belong to his/her family, the need to gain the approval of his/her parents, and the inherent idolization of their parents. A person handing over their license and registration may do so because they feel hopeless to alter the situation and the pending outcome. The opposite is also true, the officer feels obligated to process the person’s information and crime because he/she is part of something bigger than themselves, something that is for the betterment of their family, their society and a host of other things.
That is what allows the soldiers to torture their prisoners, the fearful teen to rob the grocer his family has purchased groceries from his entire life, the naive child to do as they are told whether they want to or not. It is all fueled by the belief that the actions performed are for the betterment of [insert cause of your choice]. It’s only when their behaviors and actions are questioned by a higher authority, that “I am just following orders,” is given as the reasoning.
So if we are all ‘just following orders’ in one way or another, how can we hold each other accountable for the actions we are ordered to commit? How can the teen be held accountable for the robbery and possible murder, the customer service rep held accountable for luring a client into an extended warranty, the solider for mistreating prisoners that he has been trained to think of as less than human.
This is the power of situational factors, they allow people to reach a sense of defused responsibility. “I didn’t want to burn that man I was ordered to,” “I didn’t want to rob that store, I had to,” “I don’t care if you buy the extended warranty, its company policy.” When the personal sense of responsibility is low, and a powerful external identity is present it becomes frighteningly easy for people to engage in actions they would never be capable of under different circumstances.
“I was just following orders,” is a useful and ready reasoning to fall back on when being held accountable, the question is, how much of it was orders and how much of it was real?