Thursday, December 03, 2015

Why do you have to do this?

As a student of politics and public affairs, I find it interesting how the mileau in which events occur so dramatically affects the public's perceptions of individuals.  I was reminded of this while watching Bridge of Spies, in which the protagonist James B. Donovan is asked by the Court and his law firm to take on the defense of a man accused of being a Russian spy.  As the story takes place during the Cold War and the American public's panic about anything named "Communist," Donovan is roundly criticized--and worse. Indeed, at one point, his daughter 's peaceful viewing of 77 Sunset Strip on television is interrupted by gunfire through the living room window. A policeman arriving at the scene blames Donovan. "Why do you have to do this?" asks this officer sworn to uphold the Constitution, including the right of an accused person to competent counsel.

John Adams faced similar censure when he took on the defense of the British soldiers who shot civilians during the 1770 Boston Massacre. It was an era of intense anti-British fervor.  David McCullough notes:

Adams accepted, firm in the belief, as he said, that no man in a free country should be denied the right to counsel and a fair trial.  As lawyer, his duty was clear.  That he would be hazarding his hard-earned reputation, and in his words, "incurring a clamor and popular suspicions and prejudice" against him, was obvious.

Imagine making this argument in the midst of that environment:

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence: nor is the law less stable than the fact; if an assault was made to endanger their lives, the law is clear, they had a right to kill in their own defence.

What may not be obvious to the general public in such situations is the degree to which the controversy reaches into one's family life. As in Donovan's case, the protagonist essentially puts his family at risk to stand for a matter of principle that is essential for the society to maintain protections for all. As in Donovan's case, too, the spouses' views are not always consistent with one another. His wife raised serious objections to his decision to represent the alleged spy.

I don't want to overstate the case or put myself in the category of these great men, but I had a chance to get a sense of what this feels like when I was running the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.  Under a Federal Court order, the agency was carrying out the $4 billion Boston Harbor Cleanup. A relatively small part of the project involved building a landfill to receive what are termed "grit and screenings" from the wastewater stream.  These are waste products in the sewage that cannot be recycled or reused: They must be placed in a sanitary landfill.

After an extensive site selection, thorough technical analysis, and detailed environmental review process--approved by state and federal regulatory agencies--we determined that a practical and appropriate place to build the landfill would be in Walpole, MA, near the state prison in that town, and near the border of the neighboring town of Norfolk.  As you might expect, this engendered intense local opposition.

Well, the organizers of the opposition decided that the fight would be more effective if it were presented as a personal attack against me.  It did not help that everyone running for governor (in both parties) at that time said that the landfill should go to that as yet undiscovered town called "Someplace Else."  That's OK and to be expected--just part of the job--but the mood at the time permitted things to get out of hand.

Soon I was receiving persistent and continuous calls on my home telephone line, many of which contained death threats and other threats against me and my family.  Pickets showed up at the house, timed not to coincide with my presence but rather with the arrival of my two little girls as they came home from elementary school.  We'd wake up in the morning to find trash thrown on our front lawn.  Some kind of chemical was spilled on portions of the grass, killing it.  And in one case, a decapitated squirrel was tossed in the front yard for effect.  The phone calls continued: "Watch your back" was a favorite theme.  This was before telephones had caller ID, and when the telephone company investigated the origin of the calls, there were so many hundreds that the particular messages could not be traced to specific individuals.  Because of the threats, we were forced to employ a 24-hour police guard in front of our house for many weeks.

It was during this time that my wife, always supportive of my public service, felt compelled to say, "I didn't sign up for this, to have our children threatened by a mob."  I responded, "But if you give in, you've let the fascists win."  We went to our rabbi for advice at the time, and he remarked that it was the age-old debate and conflict that families have faced in similar situations:  How you balance the legitimate needs of family protection with the imperative to protect the societal need for lawfulness?

Fortunately, in our case, things settled down.  No one was hurt.  Issues were resolved.

For me personally, the experience created a type of resiliency and willingness to dive in again in other settings; but I could certainly see how the opposite might occur.  Who could blame someone for withdrawing from public life and such controversy in the face of threats against you and your family?

As I watched the movie, I felt deeply for both Mr. and Mrs. Donovan. They both were American heroes. The country is a stronger place for what they went through together.


Janet Karasz said...

Well, you've convinced me to watch the movie. Quite a bit farther down on the threat scale I resigned as a moderator on a discussion board when the board owner saw nothing wrong with characterizing all Muslims as potential terrorists. Similarly I unfriended a couple acquaintances for suggesting that middle eastern refugees are young, male opportunists exposing their families to untold dangers. My sense of justice could not allow those opinions to stand unopposed.

Howard said...

I often find myself advising my staff/colleagues/friends in stressful situations. In each life we have only a few “character defining moments”. We don’t usually choose them, and they often pop up without warning. But they are moments where, like it or not, we have to declare to ourselves and to the world, or at least our personal world, “this is who I am and this is who I will be”. This man recently faced such a moment;

The coward who decapitated a squirrel declared who he was, and you declared who you were/are. Good for you for choosing to be who you are.

Paul Levy said...

Thanks to you both.

There is a phrase in the Pirkei Avot: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it."

Anonymous said...

Amen, Paul. I too found the story in Bridge of Spies moving for the quiet commitment and sacrifice it required of Jim Donovan and his wife. I think that few people appreciate how disruptive and frustrating it is to represent a principle that opposes convention. All the vectors line up against you and, while its a cliche, if it were easy, it would already have been accomplished. Your story about the sanitary landfill must have been frightening and a strain on your relationship with your wife. The problems we face in health care, with its entrenched perverse incentives are similar. Change is hugely difficult, and trying to effect it has a cost.

Amy Schectman said...

It's so strange what gets people that agitated, and how they choose to express it. I got a death threat (a letter made from magazine words cut out and pasted onto a paper) when I was trying to permit a new hotel in Coolidge Corner. It never escalated beyond that--and threatening your children's sense of safety is FAR worse--but it's so bizarre that people resort to such violent behavior and threats.
One nice little small world story--the police officer who came to respond to the recent break-in at my house remembered me from having worked to investigate that death threat years ago!!!!!
Thanks for posting.

Paul Levy said...

Many politicians don't realize that their forceful statements about such issues cause people to be fearful, which can create extreme reactions. In the landfill case, politicians told folks that they did not consider the environmental reviews to be accurate, and so the story emerged that "inevitable" leakage from the landfill would pollute local water supplies and poison local children. Not true, in the least: In fact, it was hydrologically impossible in the particular setting (and protection of water supplies was one key environmental criterion.) But that fear-mongering caught fire.

Also, people were told that it was because these towns had blue-collar workers, they were being used as a dumping ground. So, this was portrayed as an issue of environmental justice. Well, first of all, there's no way high-income Norfolk was in that category, and even Walpole is not exactly a poor town. Several other sites we had looked at were, in fact, in truly low income areas and were not chosen. But, on these issues, that facts are not persuasive. When you appeal to emotions, you get emotional responses.

Anonymous said...

It is good to see that others will stand out against tyranny. I'm doing it, although it isn't appreciated because it bucks the powers that be and shows where their loyalty lies, that's what needs to be shown.

Carole said...

Mr. Levy-
You obviously married someone as strong willed and minded as you are, your wife didn't sign up for that craziness but she most certainly didn't sign out either- stood up for you and with you. (Major respect to her for that). Because of your faith, the love for your wife and girls, your courage and convictions, commitment to your job and compassion for others- those fascist didn't win !!! So of course you're both stronger and better off because of that- Kudo's and Congrats, now and forever.

Anonymous said...

I am Paul's former wife who went through that experience with my family. There are a few points that I would add to Paul's description. The people who protested the dump came to our house every day to march when school was over, particularly to target our children. I had to leave work early to pick up them up at school an I walked them through the picket line to our house. This picketing happened only at our house, not at Paul's work. The telephone calls and messages we got were often aimed at the children, including threats against their lives. They were very young at the time, and I felt it important that they feel safe and protected through all of this. I can certainly feel for Mrs. Donovan and I applaud both Mr. and Mrs. Donovan. It is true that when a married person with a family takes on a difficult cause like this, the whole family is involved. Both of the parents deserve recognition.

Carole said...

Former Paul's wife

What I should of wrote was Kudo's, Congrats to you both "then" now and forever! Again major respect goes out to you for what you
and your children endured and conquered, an injustice you didn't deserve but a Victory you earned!! You must be an amazingly strong woman and mother. I'm sure (and it breaks my heart) it was even worse than what any of us could ever imagine. Just thankful to God none of you were physically harmed, and hopefully, emotionally your completely healed and living the happiest lives ever.