Several months ago, I served five days as a juror in a military court-martial. The process was both exhilarating and agonizing; I hardly moved from my chair all week, and yet I’ve rarely been more exhausted.
This was the second of two courts-martial I’ve observed as a juror since joining the Air Force nearly nine years ago. I emerged from this recent trial with a renewed awe and appreciation for our legal system, when at its best. But I also left with something else: the conviction that we have much to learn from the manner in which these trials proceed.
By “manner,” I have in mind their orderliness. Jurors are carefully screened, one by one, to ensure that they can render a fair verdict. The prosecution and defense take turns speaking, the judge intervening should either side get out of line. One by one, each witness takes the stand, as lawyers from both sides dig for every painstaking detail. The prosecution makes its case, the defense responds, a rejoinder follows. Silence fills every spare moment as one forms and sifts one’s thoughts. The process can stretch for days until, at last, the jury retires, to wrestle for hours in search of a verdict, submitting each theory to the scrutiny of the group. When you finally reach your decision, you would have thought you had birthed a child.
Everyone knows the phrase “order in the court.” Yet, have we ever stopped to ask why it exists? What is it about a trial that makes “order” so important?
As a juror exclaims in the classic movie “12 Angry Men,” “Supposing you were the one on trial!” Indeed, supposing you were. Wouldn’t you want this level of order?
I think you would—and so would I—for the following reasons:
First and foremost, we want order in the court because the stakes are high. When a decision could mean the difference between life and death—or, in the case of my recent court-martial, 30 years in prison—we can’t just settle it any old way. The character Davis makes this point in “12 Angry Men.” (The script is too brilliant not to allow for a few quotes.) “We’re talking about somebody’s life here. We can’t do this in five minutes. Supposing we’re wrong….”
Yet it’s not just the length of time spent in deliberation but the manner of deliberation that counts. Order respects the high stakes involved.
Second, we want order because many cases are complex. Jurors must sift through mountains of detail, much of which may not cohere. They “collect” those details by listening carefully; otherwise, the attorneys and witnesses speak in vain. Order aids this process of listening and sifting. Just as one wouldn’t want to take a final exam while listening to pop music and multitasking, so too we need a certain environment in which to concentrate.
When asked to render his verdict, one juror in (you guessed it) “12 Angry Men”, replies: “I don’t know. So much evidence to sift. This is a pretty complicated business…It’s not so easy to arrange all the evidence in order.”
Yet even if the simple answer seems cut and dry—“The accused did it” or “He didn’t do it”—the factors we’re asked to consider along the way are less clear-cut. Ideas like “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” and “mistake of fact” are nuanced concepts that demand the jury’s careful attention, lest the members overlook or misapply them. Order is to attention what sunlight and water are to a healthy plant; try getting the latter without the former.
Finally, as if it wasn’t enough to form our own conclusions, jurors must share those conclusions with others—must seek to persuade them or allow themselves to be persuaded—and this too demands the right kind of environment. Have you ever tried to persuade your neighbor in a din? Or make a coherent argument when you can’t even finish your sentence? Order allows for the responsible exchange of ideas that J.S. Mill, in his On Liberty, argues is so crucial to our arriving at truth.
So then, supposing we were the ones on trial, would we want order in the court? Absolutely. And here’s more.
We are on trial, every one of us. What is today’s public square, if not a place where the beliefs and actions of real people are subjected to scrutiny, often with high stakes? The loss of a job, the branding of one’s community as mere bigots, the enacting of policies that allow one to speak or not to speak, to live or not to live out one’s convictions—these are high-stakes questions indeed.
If “order” matters so much for careful decision making in a courtroom, then shouldn’t it matter in the trial of our public conversations? Nothing short of due process is at stake.
Yet even when the questions being debated aren’t whether so-and-so’s beliefs are tolerable but concern instead “mere” matters of public policy, these too require careful deliberation, lest we commit a great injustice. As John Stonestreet, president of the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, often puts it, “Ideas have consequences; bad ideas have victims”—nowhere less than in policies affecting hundreds of millions of people.
From our debates about border control and detention centers, to the permissibility of abortion, to whether or not we should enter another war in the Middle East, our public decisions have consequences for real people, sometimes for life or death. We need order—including, but not limited to, civility—to help us make those decisions well.
So then, do we have it? Does our present public square exhibit the kind of order we expect of our courtroom deliberations? Do our politicians exude it, our media commentators practice it? Do we find “order” and carefulness when surveying debates on social media or even at town halls?
And if not, what does that mean for us? If an orderly approach to deliberation is required to get at the truth and prevent violations of justice, are we willing to do what it takes? Are we willing to listen carefully, to ask good questions, to allow for those crucial clarifications, and to weigh the evidence before rendering judgment? Are we prepared to give our opponents and their ideas the dignity of an ordered appraisal, showing with our actions that we respect the image of God in them? Or will we simply scoff and close our ears, shout them down or cut them off at every turn?
Big questions, those. Let’s be known as ones who bring order—and with it, justice—back into the public square.
Christopher W. Love is an Active Duty officer who teaches philosophy at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He writes on civil disagreement and related topics at civil-america.blog. The views expressed here are solely his own and do not represent those of the U.S. Air Force Academy or the Department of Defense.