Thursday 27 January 2011

agony's last edge...

I was reading in the paper at work the other day about the case of the 11 year old child accused of murdering his father's pregnant fiancee in Pennsylvania.  The murder is shocking enough, of course... but almost as shocking is that there are plans to try the child (now 13) as an adult so that he can be imprisoned for the rest of his life.  Apparently, only the US and Somalia have refused to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which rules out life sentences with no chance of release for crimes committed before the age of 18.  The child initially appeared in court with his hands and feet shackled.  It's a shocking murder, no question, but isn't the idea of doling out some kind of righteous retribution to a child somehow horrific too?  Isn't the way we treat our prisoners the mark of a civilised society?

It was lunchtime, so we had a little conversation about this around our desks.  Most people seemed to be appalled at the prospect that a 13 year-old child might be locked away in prison and the key thrown away; prison is for rehabilitation, right?  There was an exception to this rule:

"Prison is for punishment.  He's murdered someone.  His age isn't important.  They should throw away the key."
But he hasn't been tried yet.  Don't you believe in the concept of being innocent until proven guilty?
"No.  You're guilty until you're proven innocent."
But not everyone who is tried is guilty, are they?
"There's no smoke without fire.  If you've nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear".
"In fact, they had it right in the old days: an eye for an eye.  That's what I believe.  You kill someone and you should be killed."

I was appalled, of course.  Isn't it ridiculous to be so certain that the world can be painted into blacks and whites?  rights and wrongs?  I asked him what qualified anyone to make decisions of life and death like that and to be sure that they weren't killing an innocent.  He shrugged.
"I don't know.  I'm not a judge."

And there we have it: he was prepared to completely wash his hands of the responsibility for making decisions of life and death that his opinions were advocating, but was prepared to believe that SOMEONE was qualified and he absolutely had faith that they would make no mistakes.  Easy.  Job done.  The world's a better place and we can all sleep with our doors unlocked.

He's an intelligent man, but I find it very hard to understand views like that.  They're so.... naive.  I had a flashing image of him sitting in an office alongside a railway platform, supervising people as they sorted piles of suitcases and shoes as he stamped paperwork..... unquestioning about what was happening before his eyes because he was simply carrying out his job as efficiently as he could without questioning his superiors who had told him to do it.  For the second time this week, I thought about the banality of evil: "the thesis that the great evils in history generally, and the Holocaust in particular, were not executed by fanatics or sociopaths, but rather by ordinary people who accepted the premises of their state and therefore participated with the view that their actions were normal."

Today marks the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. The gas chambers were blown up by the SS in January 1945 in an attempt to hide the murders perpetrated there from the advancing Soviet troops. On January 17 1945, the SS command sent orders calling for the execution of all prisoners remaining in the camp, but the order was never carried out. On January 17, 1945, Nazi personnel started to evacuate the facility and nearly 60,000 prisoners were forced on a death march toward a camp in Wodzisław Śląski. Those too weak or sick to walk were left behind, and these remaining 7,500 prisoners were liberated by the 322nd Rifle Division of the Red Army on January 27, 1945.

While under Allied interrogation, Rudolf Höss, commandant of Auschwitz concentration camp from 1940 to 1943, said that Adolf Eichmann told him that two and a half million Jews had been killed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau and about half a million had died "naturally".  Later he wrote "I regard two and a half million far too high. Even Auschwitz had limits to its destructive possibilities".   The likely death toll is probably somewhere between one and two million people.... an astonishing and horrifying number.

I know that the Second World War is now almost beyond living memory, but I was chastened today to remember that the liberation of Auschwitz happened less than thirty years before I was born.  We like to think of Nazism as an aberration that will never happen again, but the truth is that it very well might.  An estimated 2m people died in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 under the regime of the Khymer Rouge, and about 850,000 people were killed in the Rwandan genocides of 1994.  Maybe they didn't quite have the industrialised efficiency of the Nazis, but surely they are a salient warning: we must not be complacent, we must be vigilant and make sure it never happens again.


  1. "No. You're guilty until you're proven innocent."

    My response to that would have been, "prove you're not cheating on your spouse. Remember, you're guilty until proven innocent."

  2. As Brecht wrote...

    Der Schoß ist fruchtbar noch, aus dem das kroch.