““You cannot save everyone. Some people are going to destroy themselves no matter how much you try to help them.” — Bryant McGill
Sometimes the ties that bind – the shared beliefs or bonds that link us to one another – put us in moral or physical jeopardy. The severing of those ties, save for occasions of imminent danger, is usually the result of harrowing self-examination. That exam does little to assuage the guilt that comes when dealing with what others may see as a “betrayal” of family, friends or colleagues. The question, however, remains. Are those who sever ties with cause actually guilty of betrayal?
The answer to that is situational. It depends on what triggered the action and how the “betrayers” see the world and their place in it. I came to ask the question while reading an innocuous story about two sisters and how they survived the war in Nazi occupied France. The one,initially portrayed as the heroine, had a history of impetuous and defiant behavior. She “found” herself in the excitement of the French underground, but her heroics put her family at risk. I’ve lived long enough to see the world in shades of gray, but her choices were absolute, as was the initial judgment of her sister who effectively disowned her. I’m reserving judgment here, but weighing the right and wrong of the story started me thinking of another – this time real – story of family and what some saw as a betrayal.
For 17 years Ted Kaczynski placed or mailed 16 bombs that killed three people and injured 23 others. He was a homegrown terrorist whose bombs and booby traps targeted universities, airlines and terrorized America. While it may seem astonishing, he eluded the FBI, state police and municipal police for 18 years. He was caught because his brother, David, and his sister-in-law, Linda, became suspicious when they read the Unabomber’s manifesto and found the language to be similar to Ted’s. David agonized before sharing his suspicions with the FBI, but his information led to his brother’s arrest. At the time, his decision sparked debates in sectors of the country where filial loyalty held sway. Years later, it seems hard to believe that anyone thought David should keep the information to himself, but at the time he was criticized by groups who value silence and hold loyalty to family above all else.
American corporations value talent and loyalty and have their own code of silence. Those who break the code are called whisleblowers and the tobacco industry had two who changed the law and the way American looked at smoking. Merrell Williams was described as the mole who became the tobacco industry’s worst nightmare. He exposed the industry’s intentional coverup of smoking’s dangers, sharing internal documents with attorney’s engaged in litigation against the company for which he worked. The companies could no longer claim that cigarettes didn’t cause cancer or that nicotine was not addictive. Equally important, they could no longer claim they didn’t market to kids. Next came Jeffrey Wigand, a biochemist and former vice president of research and development at Brown & Williamson in Louisville, Kentucky. He worked on the development of reduced-harm cigarettes and in 1996 blew the whistle on tobacco tampering at the company. In depositions against tobacco companies he stated that tobacco companies manipulated nicotine content, suppressed efforts to develop safer cigarettes and lied about the addictive properties of nicotine. Together their efforts cost the tobacco industry’s $246 billion in litigation settlements. It personally cost them their livelihoods and reputations.
Common sense and moral duty would lead most of us to call authorities if we knew about a crime or saw one taking place. We certainly would not protect the perpetrator. There are, however, subcultures where the code of silence actually protects the guilty. The code is a condition that leads an individual to withhold information that is believed to be vital or important. So, we often see teens protecting teens, police protecting police and criminals protecting criminals. The code is usually kept for fear of personal safety or the need to remain a member of the group. Frank Serpico, a whistleblower, opted to expose rampant bribery in the New York Police Department. He is an example of what can happen to those who break the code of silence. Serpico, a cop himself, ended up getting shot in the face when fellow officers wouldn’t come to his aid when confronting a suspect. They thought him to be a “rat.”
A rat is one who abandons his associates. The term, first used in the 17th century, came from the belief that rats leave a ship that is about to sink. Organized crime families co-opted the word and applied it to informants providing information to the federal government. It recently moved from the annals of organized crime to the White House and the vocabulary of the president who used it to describe his former attorney.
All of this begs the question that started this rumination. Are we guilty of betrayal when circumstance or reality causes us to sever ties with people or organizations? The answer to that depends on how we have been conditioned to view moral absolutes. For some the answer is easy. Right triumphs no matter what the cost. For others, however, right itself is a conundrum and loyalty – stand by me – wins.