By Rachel Kulhavy • February 28, 2015•Writers in Residence
“It was…a pretty, a pretty good day. And then, you know, in a heartbeat, everything…everything started to go, you know, fall apart. Fast.” – Anthony Bourdain, “No Reservations: Beirut”- August 2006 (On the eve of the 2006 Lebanon War)
Boris Nemtsov. Ukraine. ISIS. Syria. Beirut. The Arab Spring. This post is not meant to betray my ignorance of geopolitics, but to pose many unanswerable questions. The world has been in turmoil since time immemorial. Wars are fought, lost, and won; walls fall and are soon rebuilt; good times come and go; boundaries are drawn and redrawn, and sometimes they are erased for good. Something about the last decade or so, however, has just felt particularly turbulent. I hope this feeling of mine isn’t just a sign that I’m getting older, but I also kind of hope it is. I hope that I’m not right, that I’m just seeing things from a different lens, that no, the world is just going on as usual. Maybe it was just the poppies flowing from the Tower of London on the Centennial of World War I that brought these melancholy feelings to the surface.
I usually don’t pay much heed to viral internet memes (I don’t know what color Taylor Swift’s dress is today, for example). However, the heartbreaking “Second a Day” video uploaded by Save the Children in May 2014 caught my attention and haunted my brain like a fever dream. One day, things are fine. You shop, you go to work, you visit family, you sleep, eat, run, fix up the house, play with the kids. And then, what happens when it all goes downhill? What happens when war breaks down the door? When your country is turned into a police state? How do we, as attorneys, uphold laws that are, well, illegal? What is our duty during martial law? During wartime?
While in law school, I was extremely fortunate to take Dean Harrington’s “Bioethics and the Law” class, where we discussed various ethical and human rights issues faced by attorneys, primarily in the context of human experimentation, medical procedures, and veterans’ issues. Throughout history, attorneys and judges have displayed enormous courage during the fog of war. The Nuremberg Trials provide many notable examples, including Cecilia Goetz, who gave the first opening arguments, and Dr. Lothar Kreyssig, who vehemently opposed the Nazi euthanasia program throughout World War II.
Attorneys practicing in the midst of totalitarian regimes have also shown extreme resilience in order to uphold human rights. During the Bosnian War, from 1992-1995, defense attorneys consistently filed petitions against the government to represent their clients from multiple instances of political imprisonment, kidnapping, and torture. As incredible as these examples are, it raises more troubling questions for me. Heroics may be easier to promote when the score’s been settled and the dust has cleared, but what happens in the daily struggle of survival? Attorneys comprise a very well-represented subset within most state and federal legislatures, and this tends to be the case the world over. We are the policy makers, we run for office, we lobby, and we are, as a profession, pretty vocal. So if this is the case, what do we do to ensure that constitutional protections are upheld before it comes to this horrifying point? If your life, your family, your means of survival are hanging in the balance of supporting one side of the civil war or the other, how do you ensure rights are protected?
As attorneys, we are taught to weigh our words, to “think like an attorney”, to analyze all sides of an argument. But what happens when there’s not really another side to an argument, when choosing sides will get you thrown in prison, when simply representing your clients means death threats, exile, or worse? Will attorneys be reduced to mere formalities? Will I? I’ve never been tested. I live in an incredible amount of prosperity. I come home and the lights come on, my cell phone rings, there’s food in the fridge, and I can freely vote in the upcoming local elections. But what if I wasn’t? Would I take a stand? Do I have the courage? Do you?