Monday, May 9, 2011
No trial for Bin Laden
Baby Boomers, one would think, should know a lot about World War II; after all, our claim to fame is that we are the children of returning veterans of that event, which, despite a lot of competition, is almost certainly the most significant of the 20th century.
Most of the world's nations -- including all of the so-called "great powers" -- were engaged; 100 million served in uniform and, including civilians, at least 50 and perhaps more than 70 million people died. It was the bloodiest conflict in history; and the toll extended far beyond death and destruction as it changed the way individuals, institutions and nations view the world.
Those of us born during the five or 10 years following the war might be expected to have been affected tremendously by its aftermath -- and it's likely that those growing up in Europe and Asia, where the physical impact was obvious and immense, probably were. But American Boomers -- and least this one -- saw very little evidence during our childhood of the horrors so recently ended.
Oh, we were great patriots, of course. Hollywood movies, including some made during the war and many more made in the 10 or 15 years that followed, gave us clarity on who were the good guys and bad guys -- and the Nazis were clearly the bad guys.
But, I don't believe I distinguished the evil deeds and intentions of the SS and Gestapo characters from the "Black Hats" in cowboy films. The fact that the atrocities committed by real-life war criminals were even more horrific -- too gruesome to portray accurately on film -- didn't sink in for me as a child.
Fifty years ago, I was an eighth grader in Mrs. Mowers' social science class at Woodrow Wilson Junior High (San Diego). A trial was getting underway in Israel, a war crimes trial, and I was assigned a term paper on the topic.
Adolph Eichmann was a real-life Nazi -- an SS colonel accused of being a mastermind for the Holocaust. Captured in Argentina in May 1960, Eichmann was put on trial the following April, convicted of crimes against humanity (along with other charges) 14 weeks later and hanged May 31, 1962. Swift justice, some might say, but not as swift as if he'd been gunned down in Argentina, as Osama Bin Laden was in Pakistan.
Doing research for the Eichmann paper finally put me in touch intellectually with the Holocaust and, by obvious extension, with evil. Movies, regardless of whether based on fact or not, are dramatizations. Most of the time, none of what happens on the screen is real, it's acting.
But I knew what I was learning about Eichmann was fact, not fiction. The trial was about finding the truth and seeking justice, not about entertainment. That trial put the war -- and warfare in general -- in a different perspective for me.
The act of killing Eichmann remains the only civil execution in the history of Israel -- a nation born the same year I was. I find it noteworthy that the evil done by Eichmann and others was so intense that it overcame a new nation's obvious rejection of capital punishment (made obvious by fifty years of not doing it again). That Eichmann's inhumanity could lead others to temporarily set aside their own humanity for revenge is discouraging to me.
My investigation of Eichmann and war crimes might not have been life changing alone; but another war movie that was released 50 years ago completed the process. "Judgment at Nuremberg," starring several of my favorite actors (Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Montgomery Clift), was one of the more hard-hitting and disturbing films I've ever seen. The film was an account of the trial of several Germans accused of war crimes following World War II.
The part that has remained with me all my life -- visual evidence that hit me as hard as the 1963 Zapruder film depicting the impact of the fatal bullet on President Kennedy's head -- is from the court proceedings.
Widmark, playing the prosecutor, showed the panel of judges 35-millimeter footage of the "clean up" at German concentration camps. This footage was obviously real, the emaciated prisoners with protruding bones and vacant stares were not actors but were actual victims. And the bodies -- too numerous and toxic to be treated with any degree of dignity and being bulldozed into mass graves -- were also real remnants of human beings who were caught up in the horror of ultimate inhumanity.
Watching those corpses tumble over one another and fall, arms and legs flailing, into huge gaping pits generated an epiphany in me like no other before or since. THIS was what Eichmann -- the small, bookish-looking older man I'd seen in newspaper and magazine photos while writing that paper -- had been part of.
My first reaction to those hundreds of bodies was disbelief. But the synapses fired quickly -- flashes of electricity traveling at the speed of light between stored knowledge about Eichmann and new, incoming visual data from the film. With connections between data sets established, my disbelief quickly gave way to understanding. THIS was World War II. THIS was part of the world I had been born into and where I would spend my life.
Maybe those few seconds, while I processed two streams of information and accepted the truth they belied, constituted my loss of innocence or my coming of age.
Fifty years later, I'm still affected. I oppose the death penalty and torture, believing they are forms of inhumanity that could lead to more and more evil. I believe in justice, but justice tempered with mercy. And I'm painfully ambivalent about the fact that our forces, unlike the Israeli Mossad 50 years ago, killed rather than captured Osama Bin Laden in his foreign hiding place.
Eichmann went to the gallows believing that he was "only following orders" and that he was not an evil person. I can't get my head around that kind of logic -- and, on any given day, I believe some people really are evil.
I don't morn the death of Bin Laden nor judge those who killed him. But I am more than ambivalent about the possibility that, in the calm and deliberate process of planning the raid, a decision might have been made to kill and not capture.
I worry about the slippery slope, not about the demise of the Eichmanns and Bin Ladens of the world. No weeping for them: let the evil that such men do live after them, and the good, if any, be interred with their bones (to paraphrase the Bard).
My main concern and hope is that any 12- and 13-year-old scholars tasked with researching the demise of tyrants not conclude that evil trumps due process or that killing killers is likely to put an end to murder.
Posted by Burke Droppings at 9:34 AM