'Why Can't We?'
You were admitted to law school in the spring of 2003. Most of you received your acceptance letters as the United States began bombing Baghdad. The lower LSAT scorers wait-listed among you got admitted just as President Bush was declaring "Mission Accomplished." Although 9/11 may have been what jolted many of you into a sense of civic responsibility or a curiosity about the world, it is probably wrong to call you "the 9/11 generation." You are more likely to be the Iraq generation. It will be you who will grapple with the financial, social, geopolitical and human consequences of a war that has gone horribly awry. When you travel abroad, you will repeatedly have to answer the question posed by strangers, sometimes with hostility, but often with sheer bewilderment: "What was the United States thinking?!" If you are American, and I think most of you are, you will find yourself defending America's honor more than you would like. You will also be ambassadors for that honor, ambassadors for what Abraham Lincoln called "our better angels."
I consider myself a member of the Bosnia generation. Out of college, at the ripe old age of 22, I trekked to the Balkans and became a war correspondent. When my mother tried to stop me, I asked a version of young Stephanie's question. "Why can't I?" In Bosnia, I interviewed parents whose children had been blown up while jumping rope on Sarajevo playgrounds; women who had spent months chained to bedposts where they had been forced to service Serb paramilitary leaders; and British, French and American diplomats who lamented the slaughter but lacked the will to stop it.
The word "brutalize" is an important one. Today it is used to signal abuse. As in "Army reservist Charles Graner brutalized prisoners in Abu Ghraib." But originally it meant something different. It was not the perpetrators who brutalized others. It was the perpetrators and bystanders who were brutalized--or degraded and coarsened--by their exposure to, or complicity in, horror. And that's what the 1990s did to many of us; the horrors of Bosnia and Rwanda brutalized our sensibilities.
I went to law school not exactly out of reverence for law but out of an acute dismay about the human costs of lawlessness. While the 1990s were about sins of omission, your generation will grapple with the costs associated with sins of commission. It is easy to get used to the morning news, habituated. But don't. The morning news is yours to alter.
Now, in the hopes that you'll take up this challenge, I'm going to tell you five personal stories, each of which offers a lesson. I figure if I give you five, I increase my odds of saying something memorable. One of these lessons might just stick.
I found law school a jarring adjustment. Harvard Law School is notoriously competitive, but I didn't struggle much with its intensity--after Bosnia, it was hard to get worked up about too much. Rather, I struggled with what felt like its irrelevance. On several occasions during my first semester, I moped into a professor's office and announced that I was going to bail when I was only $15,000 in debt. I missed Bosnia. I missed meaning. I missed my journalist friends--underachievers relative to my wired peers at Harvard Law School, but underachievers who had set out to achieve the grandest thing of all--using words (mere words!) to rescue a European people threatened with extinction. Even though I knew that our words hadn't sufficed, I missed the spirit of those who had been willing to risk their lives for a principle. I missed hanging out with those who knew they would likely fail but who couldn't help but try. My battles in law school were not with precedents; they were with pointlessness. And I was pretty sure that I lacked the mental discipline to win that war.
The near final straw came at the very end of my first semester, just before Christmas. Plane ticket to Sarajevo in my pocket, I turned in my final exam in civil procedure and gathered my wheely suitcase from the back of the lecture hall and prepared to head straight to the airport. I was pleased with the exam. To my delight, the professor had asked us to determine whether it was possible for US courts to round up and try suspected war criminals who visited New York for peace talks. I had filled my blue books with prolix prose and convinced myself I had nailed it.
Only as I left the classroom did I remember that the whole point of such exercises was to show that you can raise and respond to counterarguments. I had been so determined to nab the bad guys that I hadn't grappled with a single contrary perspective or precedent. It was a disaster. Insult only compounded injury when, as I exited the large exam hall, a particularly competitive classmate walking ahead of me muttered to her friend: "Can you believe the advantage Samantha had," she said. "I mean, she knew war criminals personally." This seemed to be taking Harvard Law School competitiveness to a fairly ridiculous place. I resisted the temptation to ask my classmate if, in order to improve her prospects during the next exam season, she would like to accompany me to the Balkans...
Now, obviously I endorse bringing passion to all you do. I'm a redhead. How could I not? But the moral of this story--call it Lesson Number One--is that too much passion can be an unhelpful thing. Conviction run amok can strip you of what the Chinese call "two-man mindfulness." You can lose the ability to step into the shoes of another. You can surrender the most essential quality of all: empathy. Unless you can unclog your ears and actually hear the other side's argument, you will be unable to learn from your peers and unable, in the end, to refute them. Your counterarguments will be grounded less in fact than in faith. Belief, conviction and passion are all virtuous qualities. But belief, conviction and passion that blind you to the perspectives of another will make you a worse lawyer and a worse person.