Press (Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City, and the Conflict That Divided America, 2006) returns with a disquisition on conscience, “about the mystery of what impels people to…stop, say no, resist.”
The author builds his account on the foundation of social psychology and examines the stories of several people from a variety of times, cultures and situations. He begins—where else?—with the Nazis in Poland, 1942, when the German Order Police committed a mass execution of Jews, but about a dozen soldiers refused to participate. Press then moves to Paul Grüninger, a Swiss policeman who in 1938 admitted into the country a number of Jewish refugees—ignoring official policy. Next the author looks at a Serb soldier who saved a number of Croats targeted for ethnic cleansing in 1991. Another case was an Israeli soldier who defied policy in an operation against the Palestinians. Press’ final example is Leyla Wydler, a financial advisor employed by the Stanford Group Company in 2000 who reported to the SEC her company’s gross deceptions. Throughout, Press notes the consequences of his principals’ actions: ostracism, firing, psychological, social and financial losses. Interviewing those still living, he learns some surprising things. Not all are intellectuals, or even had rational reasons for behaving as they did (to some, it just didn’t feel right); not all had religious or even moral reasons for their behavior. Some attribute their decision to family history or to simply looking in the mirror; none had regrets. Press believes that saying no is always possible, never easy and that the outcome is surely never certain. To buttress his analysis, he includes allusions to philosophers, psychologists and even relevant films—e.g., Silkwood.
An intelligent though sometimes dense examination of moral courage and its consequences.