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Obedience, defiance and conscience

There is a time to obey and a time to defy. For Marine Corps Corporal Dakota Meyer, it was a time to defy. You may have just read about Cpl. Meyer or caught his interview on 60 Minutes. Meyer was granted the nation's highest military award by President Obama, the Medal of Honor.

You can read all the details somewhere else, but just a short summary here. Meyer was fighting in Afghanistan two years ago. His company walked into an ambush in the dark by Taliban insurgents and were under fire from all sides. His commanders ordered him to stay back -- the "kill zone" was too dangerous. But Meyer, then age 21, knew that four of his buddies were trapped and that something needed to be done. Four times he requested authority to go into the zone and four times authority was denied. Finally, he and Staff Sergeant Juan Rodriguez- Chavez, jumped into a Humvee and headed into the firefight. Rodriguez-Chavez was driving and Meyer was manning the gun turret. They made five trips in and out of the kill zone during the six hour siege, all under heavy fire and evacuated 36 wounded Americans and Afghans while killing at least eight insurgents in the process. Finally, Meyer, now wounded and exhausted, jumped out of the Humvee and ran to a ditch where his four buddies were. All four had been killed but he retrieved the bodies. Sgt. Rodriguez-Chavez, originally from Acuna, Mexico, was awarded the Navy Cross for his valor in the fray. The modest Meyer is a civilian now working construction in his home state of Kentucky. He struggles with being honored for "the worst day of my life."

Meyer was honored for his disobedience and his bravery. His actions were truly heroic.

But, he could have been sanctioned. When is it time to obey and when is it time to defy orders?

In 1848 an American in Massachusetts by the name of Henry David Thoreau refused to pay his taxes in protest because he felt the taxes were being used to support slavery and the Mexican-American War -- both against his conscience. He was fined and refused to pay the fine so he went to jail. But he was happy to get out when somebody else paid for him, so his protest lost some of its moral suasion. Nevertheless, Thoreau wrote an essay called "The Duty of Civil Disobedience" that argued that when the law and a person's conscience are in conflict, there's a duty to disobey the law and follow the conscience. The issue is an old one that has arisen many times, most recently during the peaceful civil rights protest of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the not-so-peaceful protests during the Vietnam War.

The trouble with listening to the voice of your conscience there are some who hear strange voices whispering to them. Take Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, old army roommates. Both were militia followers and survivalists who oppose gun control. Both hated the federal government because of the Ruby Ridge standoff in 1992 and the Waco Siege in 1993. So they loaded a truck with explosives and blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in April of 1995 killing 168 people, including 15 kids and a child care center and injuring another 680. Their bomb damaged another 324 buildings within a 16 block radius and caused total property damage of $652 million. The federal building held offices of the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Secret Service and the office of the Federal Marshall. Eight of the dead were agents of those bureaus. Another 91 were other federal employees and the rest were simply in the building when it was bombed. McVeigh and Nichols murdered all those people so that the federal government would "not cause other lives to be lost." McVeigh was executed and Nichols is serving a life sentence. A federal memorial now stands at

the site of the Murrah building.

We also remember the "Unibomber" Theodore Kaczynski, the brilliant PHD mathematics professor who built a little one room cabin in the woods of Montana to escape from the world and sent out 16 explosive devices to targets like universities and airlines between 1971 and 1995, killing three and injuring 23, all to protest against "the erosion of human freedom due to modern technology." The voice in his ear, of course, was not the voice of God or the voice of conscience but the voice of paranoia and schizophrenia. Kaczynski didn't believe he was insane but he pleaded insanity to escape the death penalty.

How to sum it up? When a voice tells you to defy an order, take a risk and try to save some lives, that is probably the voice of your conscience, your best inner self and that voice may be the signal to defy the order and rush to the rescue. But when some other voice tells you to harm or kill for any reason, that is not the voice of your conscience or your best inner self, it is the voice of a serious disorder talking to you. Turn it off and get help.