LONDON — Dog lovers tend to find each other in life, for the rest of humanity is, after all, suspect. On a long flight recently, I fell into a conversation with a woman about dogs. It turned into a conversation about disobedience, and the world’s current need for it.
When immense power is in erratic and belligerent hands, as it is today in the United States, the readiness of subordinates to disobey becomes critical. “Befehl ist befehl” — an order is an order — was the German principle that enabled the Nazis’ industrialized mass murder.
The woman had been training her pet to become a guide dog. The dog did well until the phase of training dedicated to learning disobedience. A dog trained to lead a blind person needs to refuse orders if the direction received would lead into the path of a car, or onto a subway track, or over a precipice.
Her dog had failed this part of the training and became depressed. Dogs are naturally joyous. Seeing them listless is hard. We talked about feeling bad for your dog — a vast subject to dog lovers.
But the story of this dog’s failure was also reassuring. It suggested that disobedience is a higher cognitive skill than obedience, and affirmed how essential it can be. (One of the worrisome things about drones is that they won’t disobey.)
Jim Kutsch, the president of The Seeing Eye in Morristown, N.J., the nation’s oldest organization training guide dogs for the blind, told me recently: “In all other cases, the human gives a command and the dog is expected to obey that command.” He continued, “In the case of the Seeing Eye dog, the dog is obligated to decide whether the command makes sense. The dog needs to stand still, or turn left or right, and lead me away from danger.”
Over months of training, dogs are taught to problem solve rather than obey commands. They are shown the dire consequences of unswerving obedience. Of course, as Kutsch put it, “There has to be a serious reason for the dog to invoke intelligent disobedience.”
The world spent the first half of the 20th century learning the moral and legal centrality of disobedience for the preservation of civilization. At a time when President Trump talks about the United States being “locked and loaded,” betrays a fascination with nukes, shows contempt for the law, and equates American greatness with American military power above all (compare what’s happening to budgets at the State Department and the Pentagon), a reminder is in order.
In the early 20th century the “Führerprinzip” (or leader principle) held wide sway. It dictated absolute obedience to the leader over concerns of right and wrong. Karl Neumann, the German U-boat captain responsible for the sinking of the Dover Castle hospital ship during World War I, was acquitted in 1921 by Germany’s Supreme Court, which stated that all civilized nations recognize the principle that a subordinate is covered by the orders of his superiors.
These words paved the road to Auschwitz. Germany took a very long time to honor disobedience. When I was a correspondent in Germany between 1998 and 2001, I attended a ceremony at a military base being renamed for Anton Schmid, a soldier in Hitler’s army who disobeyed orders when confronted by Nazi brutality toward Jews in the Vilnius ghetto.
Schmid saved more than 250 Jews, before he was arrested in 1942 and executed. In his last letter to his wife, Stefi, he wrote, “I merely behaved as a human being.”
But human beings had all vanished in the Nazi death trance. “Merely” was the wrong adverb. “Uniquely” would have been closer. It can be singular just to be human.
At the postwar Nuremberg Trials, the idea was established that obedience to an illegal order does not absolve an individual of criminal responsibility. It has since become a core principle of international criminal law. The manifestly unlawful — genocide, crimes against humanity — must be resisted even if ordered. For example, the Convention Against Torture provides that, “An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture.” (Trump thought torture works when he took office but said he’d allow generals to override him.) Germany now teaches “innere Führung,” the inner moral compass necessary to resist barbarity.
The world mistrusts Trump. The British, in their majority, see him as a loose cannon. Many Germans dismiss him as a joke, their best-case scenario. In Asia, his intentions in North Korea are feared. So it was reassuring last month to hear Air Force Gen. John Hyten, the commander of United States Strategic Command, say he would not obey an illegal order to launch nuclear weapons from his commander-in-chief, Trump.
“If it’s illegal,” Hyten said, “guess what’s going to happen. I’m going to say, Mr. President, that’s illegal.”
The world, too, can go over a precipice. Disobedience may stand between humanity and Armageddon. The last thing we need is everyone saluting. A dog knows that. Alabama, in its disobedience to Trump, knows that.