Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Justice or Vengeance?

I have no love for the people who ran the death camps and murdered millions of people, with Jews leading the count of the dead. However, the persistence of the German government's pursuit of aged and infirm prison guards reached a new nadir today. John Demjanjuk may very well have been an active participant in the horrors of the camps. He has spent the past 26 years proclaiming that he wasn't.

What is not at issue is that he is 89 years old and has multiple physical ailments. Despite his illnesses, the German government continues to actively pursue his deportation to stand trial for war crimes, specifically 29,000 counts of accessory to murder. Today, he was removed from his home in a wheelchair, and then had his deportation stayed temporarily by the US 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. He may yet find himself on a jet to Germany.

There comes a time when we have to ask ourselves if it is really justice we seek, or vengeance. In the early years, post WWII, it was easy to speak of justice when the crimes and evidence were fresh. But now, ~54 years later, with most of the perpetrators dead, dying, or simply very old (along with the survivors), I have to ask what purpose is served by dragging a sick old man out of his home, in a wheelchair, imprisoning him in a prison hospital ward (no conventional prison cell could possibly be acceptable), and then popping him over to Germany so he can languish in another prison hospital ward until he dies? It seems unlikely he will be found physically fit to stand trial. If he is tried and convicted, what punishment could be imposed that would not be cruel, even if he is simply locked away for what little time he has left in this world?

I think, at this point, the German government would better serve its citizens and the survivors of the camps by finding a way to wind down the prosecutions. They serve no earthly purpose other than to impose the power of the government on the accused, at a time in their lives when there is little that can be done if they are convicted. If conviction is enough to serve justice, then convict them and send them home. But it is unlikely that mere convictions will suffice.

Do the German prosecutors really believe that putting the accused on trial will deter further evils? The Nuremburg Trials are long over and genocide continues on this planet. Germany, it seems to me, is traveling down the path it walked so long ago. It wishes to prove itself relentless in the pursuit of justice, but the outcome is the specter of intimidation and suffering for its own sake, not because it still serves some high moral purpose. By pursuing the aged and infirm, it repeats the actions of its long-ago predecessor, which sought to exterminate all that did not meet its "Aryan" ideal. In this case, the targets are those who did what was asked of them by that old government. If Germany seeks to expiate guilt, or complete some exotic penance, this is not the way to do it.

Is this really about seeing justice done?

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