Thursday, October 16, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — My overstuffed basement is not a place I willingly visit, but with the recent kerfuffle about a “confidential [drug] informant” program at the University of Massachusetts, I felt compelled to go.
Down in that basement somewhere, I knew, was a single sheet of paper that I had saved and abhorred for 50 years, a sheet that had forced me to choose between two principles — the law of the land and the law of the gut. The similarity with UMass was compelling enough to send me down to the basement.
The sheet was folded neatly inside an aging journal, tanned by age but legible. Its all-capitals headline read simply, “QUESTIONAIRE (sic).” The year was 1964, the place was Berlin, and the unit I belonged to was hooked into the same National Security Agency that Edward Snowden would later blow the whistle on.
Behind barbed wire and guards who looked as if they could use the .45s on their hips, our linguist chores revolved around listening to East German and Russian radio and telephone traffic and writing synopses of what we heard. The synopses were written on legal-sized sheets stamped “top secret” at top and bottom. In red.
Like any hush-hush organization, our 400-man unit was awash with quiet paranoia. We might joke about the security precautions, the God-bless-America snooping and the holstered .45s, but no one wanted to become the focus of investigation and interrogation. Who knew what the authorities might do if they caught anyone doing or saying what it was forbidden to say or do? The paranoia hung in the air and was abetted from time to time by little reminders ... as for example, the “QUESTIONAIRE (sic)”
On the face of it, the “questionaire” was innocent: All I had to do was give the name, date of birth, place of birth, address, occupation, number of meetings, and plans to see again “non-military associates” seen on a recurring basis.
If there were more than one such associate, I was to request additional “questionaires.” The same set of questions were then applied to business establishments ... bars, restaurants, cafes, hotels, etc. To all of this I was to sign my name and give my serial number. There was no indication of who, precisely, had requested the information. I simply assumed it was “they” — the ones who could do heaven-knows-what in the name of a national security.
At first glance, the paper scared the pants off me. For example, I was friends with a German woman who belonged to a group that successfully helped to bring communist-dominated East Germans across the wall that divided the city. When I asked her if I could help, she was kind but firm: When the Americans got involved, she said, things invariably got screwed up. And screw-ups led to the deaths of those trying to escape East Germany and its dictatorship. Being a party to such deaths did not appeal to me, however much my country might like to know about my associates.
After a little reflection, the “questionaire” also made me madder than hell. I had no intention of selling my country out, but I had also been brought up with a strong sense that informing on your friends and acquaintances as a means of protecting your own well-being was a couple of rungs below pond scum. As with traditional criminals and cops and doctors and clerics everywhere, omerta was important — a matter of honor.
In the end, I did nothing. I decided I would simply put the “questionaire” aside and wait for “them” to come get me and, if necessary, do their patriotic worst. The decision was purely my own — one for which I was willing to take responsibility.
And perhaps the same is true for those at UMass: Two principles on a collision course — the law of the land (some drugs are illegal) vs. a personal commitment to a humanity of which you are a part.
Shall students be encouraged to out their comrades because it’s the law of the land and because they can reap a lesser penalty for their role in some illegal act? Or shall they keep their peace and shoulder punishment they legally deserve?
Which is more important — to live life according to what the majority approves or to act and take responsibility for what you approve?
There is no single, cut-and-dried answer. This is a personal choice, not a classroom quiz that rates a passing score. Sometimes upholding and supporting the law is called for. Sometimes decency is more important, even where it concerns your enemies.
But either way, it is not so much the principle that counts: It is the willingness to take personal responsibility for it. All of it.
Principles that rest solely on what others say or believe are hardly principles at all in the end.
Adam Fisher lives in Northampton. His column appears on the third Wednesday of the month. He can be reached at email@example.com.