Courage, Shame, and Practice:

On the Ayaan Hirsi Ali thread, one commentator asked me:

[W]here did the Volokh family just move to? If it's not a gated community, maybe you and your family could bear the risks and invite her to live next to ... you and yours.

We're always braver when it's someone else you want to share the risk with you, based on your own actions, not your neighbors or friends.

That's a fair question, it seems to me: What would I do if Ayaan Hirsi Ali -- or Salman Rushdie, or a Muslim who's gotten death threats from anti-Muslim bigots, or a black activist who's gotten death threats from Klansmen -- moved next to me?

Well, I hope I'd be ashamed to complain, much less try to demand that the neighbor be evicted. Would I realize that Ali's presence, for instance, creates some extra risk for me and my family? Sure. Would I feel some fear because of that? Sure.

But I'd hope that her presence would impress me with her courage, and would move me to at least try to feign equal courage, rather than trying to hound her from the neighborhood. I hope that I'd be embarrassed to say, to my neighbors and eventually to my sons, "Someone who was very brave, and brave in the service of trying to help our nation and help mankind, took tremendous risks. And to avoid taking far lesser risks, I turned against her."

Protecting one's family is a very great thing. Protecting oneself is generally good, too. But, no, protecting one's family and oneself against all risks can't be the highest goal, if our nation, the values we cherish, and ultimate we ourselves are to survive.

We praise the brave and we condemn those who -- however rationally -- conspicuously display absence of bravery precisely to reinforce this notion. We recognize that fear is human, and often rational. We recognize that each of us, if tested, might fail. But at least we should ask, I think, for a certain degree of chagrin about certain kinds of fears, for the decency to be embarrassed about them and to keep quiet about them rather than acting on them by trying to evict a courageous neighbor.

Finally, let's put things into a bit of perspective. The risk to the neighbors in the Ali case isn't zero, but it isn't a tremendous risk, either. It's not having to go to war against an invader. It's not joining the Resistance. It's not becoming a dissident against a tyrannical government. It's not being Gary Cooper in High Noon.

It's not rushing the cockpit of a hijacked plane (which, even if it might be rational on a personal cost-benefit analysis, requires more presence of mind and ability to overcome panic than I suspect most of us could muster). It's not even speaking out yourself against an oppressive and violent ideology. Look, I understand how appalling those risks are. I sympathize with those who silently try to avoid running them.

But dark days are here, and darker still are ahead. Each of us may one day indeed face a terrible test. If we don't perform the small acts of bravery, how will we ever be able to perform the large ones? If we don't try to make a habit of courage -- if we don't seize, in our mostly safe and comfortable lives, the opportunities to be brave -- how can we make sure that our courage will be there when we really need it?

The Plumber (www):
Good post.
5.11.2006 2:14pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
I suppose the question for me would be: which gun should I keep ready? The shotgun or Thompson submachine gun would be crowd-pleasers in case she got mobbed, the .25-06 more precise, the M-1 an interesting compromise. Then again, I find the 1896 Krag so comfortable and it would lend an interesting historic air to any necessary use.

Ah, the agony of choice... I suppose the Dutch don't have this problem.
5.11.2006 2:24pm
The Original TS (mail):
Well said, Eugene.
5.11.2006 2:39pm
"A test is a gift. A great test is a great gift. To fail the test, that is a misfortune...but to refuse the test entirely, that is something worse."
--Paraphrased from Lois McMaster Bujold
5.11.2006 2:42pm
Moshe (mail):
They also need not have put themselves at risk, nor evicted her--those that were afraid could have moved.
5.11.2006 2:44pm
byrd (mail):
Excellent post.

One minor quibble: I think most of us do have the courage to rush the cockpit--Flight 93 proved that. A group of ordinary people in an extraordinary situation--unrelated strangers sharing only the misfortune to be on that plane--stepped up and sacrificed themselves for the greater good. That wouldn't have happened if the capacity for uncommon valor were an uncommon attribute.
5.11.2006 2:46pm
K Bennight (mail):
Challenges such as these make a point, but a limited one. When I have recieved such challenges, my reply is that, if I personally fail in my courage, how does that undercut the validity of my point? I too would like to think there is a strong coincidence between what I should do and what I have the courage to do, but my personal failings are not relevant to what is right.
5.11.2006 2:58pm
Hans Bader (mail):
The commentator's criticism of Eugene was deeply perverse.

The government should never force people who speak out against injustice to leave their homes, just to appease the fears of some of their neighbors that others may retaliate against that speech.

Since when did it became praiseworthy to succumb to threats of retaliation?

Does the commenter believe that the people who hid Anne Frank from the Nazis deserved condemnation for thereby putting their own lives, and the lives of their neighbors, at the risk of retaliation and reprisals by the Gestapo?

I certainly hope not, but that's the absurd result of taking the commenter's reasoning to its natural conclusion.

We may not always have the courage to help others who are threatened, but certainly the state should not assist us in dispossessing those who are threatened and driving them from their homes because of our fears of being exposed to such retaliation.

That is especially true in Ms. Ali's case, where any danger to her cowardly neighbors was pretty remote.
5.11.2006 3:00pm
Humble Law Student:
Excellent. Very well said
5.11.2006 3:03pm
cirby (mail):
On the other hand, I have some neighbors who would happily have me move just because I have a beat-up old Bug instead of a nice new car. Property values, ya know...
5.11.2006 3:19pm
Glenn B (mail):
"But dark days are here, and darker still are ahead. Each of us may one day indeed face a terrible test. If we don't perform the small acts of bravery, how will we ever be able to perform the large ones? If we don't try to make a habit of courage -- if we don't seize, in our mostly safe and comfortable lives, the opportunities to be brave -- how can we make sure that our courage will be there when we really need it?"

Are you psychotic? What dark days? I mean, compared to virtually any point in time in the 20th century, hell, even the last millenium, we are doing pretty damn well right now. Could we please maintain a sense of perspective?
5.11.2006 3:28pm
Robert Schwartz (mail):
Here in the USA, you have the right to buy a 12 gage, and to use it to protect your family and your home. That is not true in many places in Europe.
5.11.2006 3:35pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Glenn B: Tip 1: If you want a substantive discussion, don't start by asking the other person whether he's psychotic. Tip 2: Assume the other persion is not psychotic, and ask yourself whether there could be a sensible interpretation of what he's saying.
5.11.2006 3:41pm
Aeon J. Skoble (mail):
Nice post -- well put, esp. the last paragraph.
5.11.2006 3:46pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Rebecca West, in her "Black Lamb and Gray Falcon" finished in the shadow of the Blitz, remarked on two items. One was that, in those late summer days, the weather was particularly and achingly beautiful, as if a last gift to those about to die. She saw people taking time to smell the roses, both metaphorically and literally, as if to say, "I must remember this, when we go down into the dark."
She also said that "we" had picked up our fathers' old courage and found it handled comfortably.

The story of how their fathers' courage had been put down is the subject of the book, a weekend's read.
5.11.2006 3:52pm
Houston Lawyer:
I'd say the risk in this situation is considerably greater than the risks created by the NSA wiretapping programs so frequently lamented here. The risks from terrorists attempting assassination would be reduced considerably by granting the neighbors the right to openly carry automatic weapons.
5.11.2006 3:55pm
Tuch (mail):
I stand by a general exception to the duty to do the best thing, all things considered. It is the rule of ordinary courage. One is not required to be a hero. Moreover, when one has responsibilities to others, the best thing to do may well be to protect them even if it means denying concern for someone else.
5.11.2006 3:56pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
No, you don't need to be an actual, big-time hero. But is it so much to ask that you not go to court to kick the heroes out of your apartment building?
5.11.2006 4:04pm
Gary Imhoff (mail) (www):

Legal writing is most concerned with clarity. It is difficult to produce writing so clear that it is understood easily and misunderstood only with great effort. That is why legal writers rarely rise to eloquence. But when the writing is inspired by passion, it can happen.

As it has here.
5.11.2006 4:05pm
logicnazi (mail) (www):
Hans Bader,

Exactly right! It's always bugged me the way people insist on saying that the people on flight 93 were so exceptional or even worse that people in the two towers (the traped people not the firefighters) were heros. Yes the people on flight 93 are heros and worthy of praise but this capacity isn't particularly rare. Ordinarly people will often do extraordinary things in extraordinary situations. Yes it took courage but they probably believed they would die if they didn't act which makes one more likely to act.

The people in the two towers were no more courageous or special than any other people who die in a disaster or fire. Frankly, I find the worship of the 9/11 victims kinda insulting and unfair to all the people who lose their family in car crashes or from other factors beyond their control. Note I am not talking about the firefighters or other individuals who volountarily assumed risk by entering the towers.

As for this issue with kicking out the threatened individual I think the individual questioning Prof. Volokh isn't properly distingushing individual action and government action. While it would certainly be more noble to stay in the community and bear the risk I don't think it is unreasonable for the neighbors to move away. Sure it's a bit cowardly and gives in to the terrorists but this just gives the market a chance to work and let people who are more willing to bear the risk snap up those houses at a lower price.

However, when the court rules or the government acts they are creating a policy. It is one thing to decide that you don't want to live next to a threatened individual it is entierly another thing to create a policy which says that people who don't want to live next to a threatened person can force that person from their homes. This creates a precedent which encourages further threats of death or violence by giving these threats greater effect.

Additionally the form of the justification (right to safety in one's home or something similar) is very disturbing. Particularly because it is hard to see how this justification is not equally applicable if the individual had been living in that same house the entire time. Though I likely suspect that the court would distingush a situation where a private person had always been occupying a house from one where the government just buys a house and fortifies it to protect a controversial individual it raises other disturbing questions.

What happens if a government run university chooses to teach a controversial course? Say one that covers depictions of mohammed through the ages? If such a course generates death threats can the people living in the vicinity or in student dorms sue to demand the government cease teaching this course? If not how does this differ from the housing case just decided?

Ultimately what private people do to protect their families is just very different than precedents governments and courts set to deal with threats.
5.11.2006 4:11pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):
Glenn B writes:

Are you psychotic? What dark days? I mean, compared to virtually any point in time in the 20th century, hell, even the last millenium, we are doing pretty damn well right now. Could we please maintain a sense of perspective?
Yeah, Volokh is psychotic. He imagined that some jihadists flew airliners into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, a field in Pennsylvania, blew up a night club in Bali, subway trains in London, tried to destroy the World Trade Center in 1993, and murdered a film maker in the Netherlands. Oddly enough, his psychosis seems to be shared--the government's mind control rays seem to have implanted the same false memories in my head.

How much risk are the neighbors at? Probably not dramatically more than living in the Los Angeles area around 1980. It was dangerous. But you can't let monsters win. No one gets out of here alive. The least that you can do is show some courage in confronting the monsters. Cowering in fear--or running at the slightest risk--tells the monsters that they are right.
5.11.2006 4:12pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):
Glenn B. writes:

Are you psychotic? What dark days? I mean, compared to virtually any point in time in the 20th century, hell, even the last millenium, we are doing pretty damn well right now. Could we please maintain a sense of perspective?
There is one enormous difference between say, 1942, and today. In 1942, there was overwhelming agreement that the Axis powers needed to be defeated. A small number of pacifists refused to serve in the military (and were prosecuted and imprisoned for that), but they weren't actively defending the Axis powers.

Today, a big chunk of the intellectual community is either actively defending Islamofascism and its murderous actions, or engaging in a pretense of putting civil liberties first, when in fact they are primarily trying to hinder what have been successful efforts to prevent another terrorist attack, for partisan purposes.
5.11.2006 4:18pm
Syd Barrett (mail):
Did anyone note the clever way in which Eugene avoided answering the question of whether he is psychotic? Good training for future witnesses....

Careful with that axe, Eugene.
5.11.2006 5:21pm
Robert Schwartz (mail):
Rebecca West, in her "Black Lamb and Gray Falcon"

One of the worst books ever written. She swallowed Serbian nationalist propaganda hook, line, and sinker. The prose is turgid to the point of indigestibility.
5.11.2006 5:48pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Syd Barrett: Good point! But they said those records were sealed, dammit, how did you know about the axe?!
5.11.2006 5:58pm
Syd Barrett (mail):
5.11.2006 6:02pm
Glenn B (mail):
Clayton Cramer does my work for me. Mass psychosis seems like a plausible diagnosis.
5.11.2006 7:04pm
Stormy Dragon (mail) (www):
>Protecting one's family is a very great thing.
>Protecting oneself is generally good, too. But, no,
>protecting one's family and oneself against all risks
>can't be the highest goal, if our nation, the values we
>cherish, and ultimate we ourselves are to survive.

Protecting oneself and ones family should be the highest or nearly the highest goal. The problem here isn't the emphasis on protecting ones family; it's the failure to recognize that there are things other than imminent physical violence which endanger them.
5.11.2006 7:19pm
hey (mail):
There are definite restrictions on owning weapons in Holland, but in France and the UK one can purchase long guns relatively freely for hunting purposes. For home defense, especially against a terrorist assasination of one's neighbor, long guns and shot guns will be very useful. So stock up, and claim that it's for hunting Boar and Elk. You're liable to face some hard questions if you have to use them, but even the Brits aren't going to put you away for shooting a jihadi, even if they recently have been doing the same for shooting a burglar.

As also mentioned, if you are a coward, you can run. That's at least more honorable than forcing the hero to leave.

It would be much better in Texas! Load up, and load heavy!
5.11.2006 8:20pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Robert Schwartz:

I suppose you'd think that was important if you thought the important issue was Serbian nationalism or victimization or something.

Not so. The important issue was the influence of the black lamb and the grey falcon (speaking of religio/cultural streams) on western civilization and why it was in peril at the time.

Nevertheless, if you want to skip about fourteen hundred pages, you can read the forward and the suffix and get a good view of things then (1940) and, presciently, now.
5.11.2006 9:39pm
jpaulg (mail):
The question isn't quite as benign as Eugene puts it, of a terrorist target moving in next to him.

The question is the state moving a terrorist target in next to you and providing addition physical security measures (bullet proof glass etc.) to the terrorist target, but not providing those additional physical security measures to you.

Either way I'd like to say that if it were simply me at risk I'd be happy to take the risk on, but as soon as it involves my family taking that risk on ...
5.11.2006 10:11pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Now that I think about it, wasn't there some kind of foofaraw making it a crime to complain about child-molester half-way houses put next to or in residential areas or near schools in California?
I remember Slade Gorton and, I think, Barbara Mikulski combining to hold up some legislation--probably an appropriation bill--until it got straightened out. I think CA was taking the position that complaining about the the bastards was actively discriminating and thus criminal.

I was thinking of googling california and discrimination and lawsuit and maybe one or two other qualifiers, but the likelihood is I'd get about nine million hits.

But that would be the equivalent of putting not the terrorists' target, but the terrorist, next door. Different issue, although neither was comfortable for the locals.

I wonder about my family, too. Still, teaching courage and honor can't be done solely by lecture. Sometimes you need a lab.
5.12.2006 12:06am
John R. Mayne (mail):
Wonderful post.

There are tons of little opportunities for courage and integrity in life, I think. Who hasn't had a work situation where they ought to have spoken up for a person or principle, or they could take or foist off responsibility for their own foul-up?

You don't have to end up at the wrong end of a gun to know you have courage. If Ali wants to move next door to you in this case, you can be courageous and welcome her. Or, you can be less courageous and move. Or, you can be a morally suspect human being, and try to get her booted.

At some point you have to step up. Stepping up in the rest of your life - taking responsibility for your own screw-ups, working to get the right thing done - helps you step up in a crisis. Heroism and clear thinking take practice. If the opportunity to storm a cockpit or disarm a gun-wielding psycho who wants to kill you never comes up, it's still a satisfying lifestyle.


"There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at without result." - Winston Churchill
5.12.2006 1:46am
Roger Waters:
also watch out for several species of small furry animals gathered together grooving with a pict
5.12.2006 1:47am
I see nothing fundamentally wrong with the Netherlands or Ms. Ali's neighbors as far as this situation is concerned.

Imagine neighbors' reaction in the U.S. if an anthrax clinic or an Air Force base were to move to a residential neighborhood or if a loud demonstration is held there at 3 am.

It would wrong to fault the neighbors for improper attitude towards anthrax, national defense, freeedom of speech, etc.

I think the key here is that the government could not show lack of better alternatives for housing Ms. Ali. The court has said that "the State failed to show that other possibilities were explored than putting [person] in an apartment."
5.12.2006 1:37pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
The court could have put her in prison, as they have with another politician. Or on a military base. How do we define "better"?
5.12.2006 2:54pm
Paul Gowder (mail):
And this is why, even though I disagree with Eugene on almost every major (non-civil liberties) political issue, I respect him greatly.
5.12.2006 3:04pm
Tina (mail):
If a terrorist decides to blow up the apartment building, a gun wouldn't actually be much help unless you happen to catch the SOB planting the explosives (in which case, blow his head off with my blessing).
5.12.2006 7:19pm
The choice where to place a source of nuisance and/or risk to safety is made without necessarily having an explicit definition of "better". Wherever it is going to be, it will incovenience someone, but this does not mean that some locations are not better than others. It's a matter of balancing.

In the US we balance conflicting rights and interests, for example, when we consider the propriety of a time and place of a demonstration which lasts a few hours.

The Dutch are also apparently trying to balance conflicting rights and interests when they consider the location of the government--provided residence for a parlamentarian under terrorist threat (which will last months if not years).

Without having (at least) full translations of the court opinions, we don't have enough facts to comment on the outcome of the balancing (which came out differently at different courts and is still under appeal), but I see nothing wrong with this approach to the issue.
5.12.2006 10:51pm
Hans Bader (mail):
Scrivener's above comment persists in blaming the victim by saying that the threatened speaker, Ms. Ali, is "a source of nuisance and/or risk to safety."

She is not. The terrorists who threatened her are.

She is no more a nuisance than Ann Frank was a nuisance in the house where she was hiding from the Gestapo (indeed, unlike the cowardly neighbors who demanded Ms. Ali's eviction, who had themselves been subject to no threats, Ann Frank's neighbors were courting the risk of Gestapo reprisals if the Gestapo believed rightly or wrongly that they were aware of her presence).

The courts should not use coercive means to force her out. They should be putting those threatened her behind bars instead.

There are no conflicting "rights" here. No one has a "right" to force another tenant to leave her home because of threats against her.

One's private property rights are not a basis for demanding that the government intrude into someone else's property (the apartment housing Ms. Ali had been duly purchased for her very use) to evict them because they have exercised their right to free speech against wrongdoers and as a result incurred a hostile reaction from those wrongdoers.

"Inconvenience" might justify neighbors in taking private voluntary actions like moving themselves, or a landlord in refusing to sell the apartment to a risky tenant (although the latter would not be morally laudable in many cases).

It cannot justify using coercive state action, in the form of a court injunction, against the endangered speaker.

When I read comments like Scrivener's, I feel like I must be living among aliens.
5.14.2006 6:20pm
The fact that the government (or anyone for that matter) has bought a piece of property does not mean that what they do with it cannot be regulated ---- especially when it directly affects the neighbors. In many cities and towns even the number of tenants in a residence is regulated by law.

The neighbors there were upset about for months and probably years ahead "(i) having to wait at the elevator or parking garage when [person] comes and goes, and security personnel occupying a resident's parking space; (ii) contact with security personnel and having to show identification to security personnel in the common areas (hall, parking garage, elevator); and (iii) fear of being subject to an attack while in one's own home".

The Dutch apparently let their courts find the balance between the competing interests of the neighbors, the government, and the government's tenant.

I don't see how moving Ms. Ali from one to another equally safe government--provided location in modern-day Holland is in any way comparable to forcing Ann Frank from hiding into Gestapo hands.

I think it's fair to refer to an anthrax clinic as a potential (depending on circumsatnces, of course) source of nuisance and/or risk to safety without blaming any infected people there (even though one may say that the anthrax spores are the real source); just like in the case of government--provided safehouse for a victim of a terrorist threat.
5.15.2006 2:49pm