Friday, June 1, 2012

The Baldness of Evil

Another anniversary has just lapsed that, to my knowledge, got no attention in the press. It was the anniversary of the execution of Adolph Eichmann 50 years ago yesterday in Jerusalem, after a spectacular show trial in which survivors of the Holocaust were able to confront him, albeit inside a bullet-proof glass cage. Hannah Arendt covered the trial for The New Yorker and wrote her now famous line about the "banality of evil".

The timeliness of the anniversary was lost on observers of the trial of Charles Taylor, who was sentenced on May 30 to 50 years in jail for crimes of "utmost gravity and scale of depravity." Not even the presence of newly-elected German President Gauck on a state visit to Israel this week reminded anyone of the occasion of Eichmann's trial and execution.

The evil that Eichmann embodied was of such incalculable proportions that it dwarfed the ordinary terms of justice. Any justice system would be at a loss before such colossal crimes. The charge of "crime against humanity" (coined by the American Republican Party in 1860 characterizing the slave trade) was created to address just this inadequacy, this dearth of proportionate language. If the loss of millions of innocent lives was bad enough, men like Eichmann forced us to redefine the nature of crime and of punishment.

If "punishment" is what the Israeli court had in mind when they sentenced Eichmann to death, how could the manner of his death (by hanging) to any degree match the enormity of his crimes? Hannah Arendt stated it a little too glibly:

Just as you [Eichmann] supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations — as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world — we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.

Her argument just as easily supports a life behind bars. Eichmann is the only case in Israel in which capital punishment was invoked. In the unlikely event that a former Nazi might be found and put on trial in Israel, the worst that could happen to him would be spending the rest of his natural life in jail. Eichmann was 56 when he was hanged.

The Nuremburg Trials set a rather odious precedent for war crimes trials. A group of men, including the former commander of the Third Reich's Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring, sat throughout the trial crowned with headphones through which the languages spoken during the trial were translated into German. Of the original 25 men accused, 12 were sentenced to death. A U.S. Army hangman (yes, there was such a thing) carried out every execution.. Many of the hangings were botched, i.e., the hanged men's necks weren't broken - and they died, after several minutes, of asphyxiation. One of them, Göring, cheated the hangman by biting down on the cyanide capsule he had somehow procured. He was found in his cell wearing powder blue pajamas.

Othello fearsomely said of Cassio, whom he suspected of cuckolding him with Desdemona, "Had all his hairs been lives, my great revenge had stomach for them all." It was the Israelis who invented the simple definition of justice, "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." Balding, Eichmann hadn't nearly enough eyes, nor teeth.

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