Law in Contemporary Society
This paper was revised as part of the second-paper assignment


Whenever there is a suicide bombing, an air strike or a missile strike going on, the victims seem to include women and children. Sometimes, the media and certainly politicians are quick at telling us that “innocent women and children“ or “innocent victims” have died in the incident. In the following, I would like use the “innocent women and children” statement to show that we need to be aware of the values implicitly expressed by other people and “society”.



In our suicide bombing scenario, the first question everyone should confront himself with is: If the victims are deemed to be innocent, they are innocent with respect to what? Or, to pose the question in a different way: Guilty of what? Guilty of the bombing/air strike? The war? Climate change? In most cases, the journalist would not tell us what he believes the victim is not guilty of. But since the answer to that question is not self evident, every journalist should provide his audience with his personal answer.

Does Innocence matter?

Once he have answered the first question, we may proceed to the second one: Does it matter whether the dead are guilty or innocent? Let's assume that these women and children are guilty, that they caused the war, or the climate change. Does that make the killings any better? Is it better to kill guilty people?

Women and Children v. Men

That leads us to the third and last question we have to pose: Is it important that women and children have been killed and not men? In the classic ship wreckage scenario, the “women and children first” policy might make some sense since men are considered to be stronger and therefore better equipped to rescue themselves. In suicide bombings or air strikes, however, it seems to me that men are as vulnerable as women and children. If that is true, why is it that journalists still explicitly mention the death of women and children? Is it that the death of a young human being is worse than the death of an old person (or, for that matter, an old man)?

Journalist's Purpose and Impact

What the media does here is changing the world using words. In my view, journalists are implicitly expressing at least two opinions: First, it is better to kill guilty people than innocent people. Second, it is better to kill men than women and children. Since these statements may be controversial, they are not expressed explicitly. They are well packaged and transmitted indirectly. However, there is a good chance that the reader will consume this viewpoint and internalize it. Most consumers are not asking the questions I just raised above, they prefer to accept the views (implicitly) expressed. The journalist helps the consumer in his passivity by not expressing his point of view directly.

As you might have guessed, the problem just described not only applies to journalism and is a mere example of what goes in our everyday life – we are surrounded by implicit views, opinions and values every day. Most people however do not seem to realize this fact (or did you ever question the “innocent women and children” statement?). Just take gender stereotypes perpetuated in television: It's usually a man advertising for cars, women are advertising for detergent. In most movies, people see marriage as the ultimate fulfillment of life. So why is it that so many women still chose to stay at home and look after the children instead of pursuing their professional career (and having the man staying at home)? And do so many men pursue their professional career instead of doing something else? Why is it still unusual for a man to change his last name upon marriage? Is that due to a completely conscious decision or is it due to internalized and unquestioned traditions and views shown in almost every TV series?


It is not my purpose to suggest answers to the questions raised above. I am not saying that the death of innocent people is worse than the death of guilty people. I am not saying the the death of children is worse than the death of men. I am not saying that women should not stay at home and look after their children. What I would like to say is that we should be aware of the fact that many views and opinions are not expressed explicitly but in a much more subtle way. Everybody should be careful to identify and recognize these views. Furthermore, I suggest that everybody treat the views offered by others very carefully and think even about the most simple proposition.

It is equally important that people realize that they too use tools to express their values. The journalist in my example does it (although I am not entirely sure whether all journalists really know what they are doing) and we all do it every day, sometimes unconsciously.

The aforesaid applies all the more to lawyers. In Western societies, lawyers do not only perform as attorneys, prosecutors and judges, they are also highly involved in politics. Be it as President of the United States or a Member of Congress, lawyers influence our lives. Lawyers rely on words more than most other professions do. So whenever lawyers hear, read or speak, they should be fully aware of the implicit values that words transmit.

  • The first response I found I had to the piece was the recognition that its premise was wrong: the news sources I see and hear every day, like the NY Times, the Wash Post, the Guardian, NPR and BBC, do not report the deaths of innocent women and children, except to quote the politicians who do editorialize in those ways (as in calling bombers "cowardly"). The recognition of implicit biases in all sorts of communications is as important as you say in building social awareness for lawyers. But it's hard to know what to make of the fact that most of the essay's time and effort seems to be spent twisting backwards ad forwards a non-existent insight.

Peter -- in order to edit this, you may want to read Orwell's Killing Civilians (1937), which for reasons that Prof. Moglen can perhaps explain appears unavailable on the internet. The general sentiment of it is in his As I Please column on pages 150-152 of this collection


Webs Webs

r5 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:11:16 - IanSullivan
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