Considering the limits of loyalty

What are the limits to family loyalty?

Should blood be thicker than any other allegiance—that is, are family ties more important than any responsibility we may feel to society?

What does a parent do when her or she discovers illegal wrongdoing by a child? Or a brother who realizes one of his siblings is involved in criminality?

What is the right course of action?

James Cavallo, acting police chief in Moore Township, Pennsylvania, had to face that choice directly last week when he realized, studying the photos of a bank robbery, that he recognized the suspect….his son. The Associated Press reported that Cavallo made the hard choice—to turn his 28-year-old son in to the authorities.

“I knew I had to do it,” Chief Cavallo said Friday. “There was no question about it.”

James Cavallo Jr., 28, was arrested Wednesday and charged with robbery, theft and receiving stolen property. After making what the police said was a videotaped confession, he was jailed on $500,000 bail.

Chief Cavallo said his son had told him that he was high on cocaine on Tuesday when he went into a local bank, handed the teller a note claiming he had a gun and left with $6,000.

Cavallo had become concerned that his son was slipping back into a cocaine habit that had plagued him in the past. He told the AP, “being arrested is the first step of intervention for a lot of people.”

And Cavallo further told the reporter Kurt Bresswein of the Express-Times that in his experience those who committed crimes had their own choices to make:

“Some of them get into jail and they get rehabilitated, they learn stuff. And the other half, they go in there and they learn how to be a better criminal. I just hope he takes the path of learning what he did and kicking his habit. The most important lesson he can learn is that he has to be responsible for what he did.”

Turning a family member is easier in theory than in practice. Most of us are raised to believe that “family comes first.” Our instinctual protectiveness for “kith and kin” surfaces when faced with deciding what course to take. The law, for instance, will not compell a husband to testify against a wife, and vice versa.

Silence was certainly an option for Chief Cavallo; he could have rationalized that his son was going to be caught sooner or later and that he didn’t need to intervene.

It is not always certain that societal responsibility will necessarily prevail over family loyalty. Others faced with similar moral choices have not always helped the authorities. The brothers of the infamous Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, a serial murderer, failed to help the FBI locate their fugitive sibling—even though one of them had become a state senator and the other a clerk-magistrate.

“Political” fugitives from justice ranging from the radical Weather Underground of the 1970s to the anti-abortion bombers and White Supremacists of the 1990s have relied on friends and family to cover up for them. Those aiding and abetting may act out of political sympathy or family loyalty—but, in the end, they let personal feelings trump the demands of justice.

Even when there seems no alternative but to contact the authorities, there can be hesitation. David Kaczynski has written about two nightmares he faced—the first, realizing that his older brother Ted, who he had admired and respected, was the Unabomber, and the second, trying to figure out his own response: “…what should we do? Say nothing and run the risk that my brother might attack others? Or alert the FBI knowing that the Unabomber would likely face execution?”

David Kaczynski fought to keep his brother from being executed for his crimes. Ted Kaczynski’s lawyers were successful in blocking the death penality for the Unabomber. David Kaczynski adds:

Would I do it again, knowing what I know now? The answer is yes. I believe that we probably saved lives. I trust the values and ethics that moved us to do what we did. I know that it would be a mistake to use others’ failures as an excuse to avoid personal responsibility. The truth is a very powerful thing. I believe there’s no possibility of overcoming evil with evil, falsehood with silence, violence with indifference. If we want to change the world for the better, we must put ourselves on the line.

That David Kaczynski and his family struggled with meeting that responsibility is all the more proof of how deeply loyalty runs, and how flawed it can be.

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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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