"Twelve Angry Men"

Just because a group of people decides something is right does not mean it is. Entire societies have blindly conformed to murderous governments, like Hitler’s or Stalin’s, out of fear for their own lives or out of blind obedience. Some genuinely believed their actions were just, while others did not feel obligated to stick up for what they felt was right. Even in this country some people still believe slavery was justified; in fact, the government of Texas recently ruled to change their school textbooks to not include the word ‘slavery’.

Reginald Rose’s play Twelve Angry Men is an allegory of 1950’s America, before the escalation of the Civil Rights Movement, at the height of the McCarthy Era, when Americans were convinced the Soviet Union was going to take over the world. The entire country was in a panic over the Cold War, and anyone sympathetic to communism was considered an enemy of the state. People turned in their friends, colleagues, and even relatives to avoid losing their jobs or going to prison.

In the play, the jurors consist of twelve white males who are judging whether or not a 16-year-old boy from a minority group killed his father in cold blood. When the jurors first take a vote, eleven of the twelve jurors vote that he is guilty, because society has already thrown the boy in the garbage. It is unimportant to the jurors whether the boy lives or dies. Only Juror Number Eight is willing to stand up against the others. He does not want to condemn a boy to death without conferring about the case first, for he would be unable to live with it on his conscience if the boy was in fact innocent. He says:

“Look, this boy’s been kicked around all his life. You know – living in a slum, his mother dead since he was nine. He spent a year and a half in an orphanage while his father served a jail term for forgery. That’s not a very good head start. He’s had a pretty terrible sixteen years. I think maybe we owe him a few words. That’s all.” (Page 89)

By refusing to go along with the guilty verdict, Juror Number Eight subjects himself to the other jurors’ anger and verbal attacks. This setting is a small, controlled environment, but is an example of what happens every day when someone refuses to conform to society’s views. The other Jurors take Juror Number Eight’s lack of conformity personally, and get bent out of shape because many of them lack substantial evidence to prove their opinions, while eliminating all reasonable doubt. Juror Number Eight, on the other hand, stays calm and levelheaded, presenting the facts of the case with an unbiased perspective. He is able to point out many flaws in the Prosecution’s case, and inconsistencies in the various witnesses’ testimonies.

Slowly but surely, by appealing to the jurors’ own humanity, he manages to convince them one by one that there is a reasonable doubt the boy is innocent. Juror Number Three in particular is loath to admit there is a reasonable doubt the boy is not guilty. But even he eventually succumbs to conformity, because he is standing alone and all the other Jurors wish to acquit the boy. In the end, the jury exonerates the boy, showing that human beings can be persuaded to do the right thing.

Throughout history many leaders have abused their powers and led entire societies into horrible wars, or acts of genocide, but no one dared to speak up. The very few who did were punished severely, because they were contradicting popular belief. However, as Henry David Thoreau said in his magnificent essay, On Civil Disobedience, “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”

Most people will put their own needs first, concerned with their own and their immediate family’s survival. Though sometimes, when people thought the best road to take was to keep silent and just accept what was happening, it really was not the best option after all. One Holocaust survivor, Pastor Martin Niemöller, wrote in 1946:

First they came for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me
and by that time no one was left to speak up.

Just as recently as the beginning of the Iraq War, the government stated that anyone opposed to the invasion of Iraq was “unpatriotic,” which scared many people into silence, despite the fact that they questioned the government’s reasoning on the necessity of the invasion.

Twelve Angry Men is an allegorical play with a happy ending. Juror Number Eight wins, and justice is served. Americans can once again feel good about themselves and their system of justice. This is one occasion when we learn that taking a stand is the right thing to do, and can effect change.

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