Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Justice, Vengeance and Punishment

This morning I read in the paper the news that a 91-year old woman is to be charged with being an accessory to murder.  Not wholly outside the realms of possibility you might think, but this woman is charged with being accessory to 260,000 murders.  In brief, she was employed as a radio operator by the SS, and served at Auschwitz for three months in 1944, at the age of 20.

I have to confess that this troubles me, and I question the value, or even the rightness of this prosecution.  Now, obviously the Holocaust was one of the greatest evils ever enacted by mankind, and the name Auschwitz should never cease to be associated with horror, death and evil on an industrial scale.  It should never be forgotten, and everyone associated with it should have carried the burden of it for the rest of their lives.  I imagine that this woman probably has.

However, to punish her now, at the age of 91, seems to me almost pointless.  Indeed, what is the point?  Generally, punishment functions (or should, if it’s not completely arbitrary and tyrannical) as rehabilitation, incapacitation, deterrent, retribution, or some combination of two, three or all of the above.

Could it be rehabilitation?  I think that she’s rather beyond that now.  She has presumably managed to live for the last 71 years without killing anyone, or joining in on a national program of industrial genocide, and the odds of her repeating her crime seem extremely low.

Incapacitation?  See above.  This elderly woman hardly needs to be kept apart from a public that she would otherwise endanger.

Deterrent then? I very much doubt that this woman needs persuading not to join in a mass atrocity again.  I imagine that she feels sufficient shame, and besides, if a new Nazi party were suddenly to appear, she’s a little old to be joining a new SS.  Of course, this could be seen as a deterrent to others.  “No matter how long you can keep quiet, no matter how much time passes, if you are party to an atrocity, you will be found and punished.”  Whether this really works in practice is debateable.  Are the members of IS really going to look at this 91 year old woman and think, “Gosh, that could be me in sixty years!  Time to give up the whole global jihad thing before it’s too late!”

That leaves us with retribution.  This has always been problematic to me, because it smacks more of revenge than justice.  It may surprise you (since I am in many ways a wishy-washy liberal type) to know that I am not necessarily against the smacking of children (within very tight bounds, and as an absolute last resort).  However, it should never be done out of anger, or a desire to punish for the sake of punishment.  Never, “You’ve done a bad thing, so a bad thing is going to happen to you in return!”  I believe in it solely as a deterrent.  A desire to punish this woman for what she did is understandable, but unless she’s a monster (which is of course possible), she’s already lived a life of punishment knowing that she was involved, if only briefly, in the Holocaust and with Auschwitz.
And lest we forget, this was not the commandant, this was not the person who turned on the gas chambers or pulled the trigger; she was not even a guard.  She was a radio operator, and she was there for three months, she was 20 years old, and the Nazis were at the height of their power.  Did she request the posting?  I don’t know.  Did she believe, heart and soul, in the rightness of what was happening there?  Again, I don’t know.  Perhaps she did.  We must at least assume that she was aware of what was going on.  Perhaps she has lived her life with a sense of wronged righteousness, and a continuing belief that Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and the rest should all be put to death.  If that is the case, and I struggle to believe it, will spending her few remaining years in a prison change her mind?  Will it give the victims, or their descendants, some sense of justice done?  Again, to me it smacks less of justice, and more of revenge.  And as likely as having lived believing that she did nothing wrong is the possibility that she has spent her entire life since trying to atone, trying to live a good life and help others.  Again, we don’t know.

Of course, if it were my parents, grandparents or great grandparents in the mass graves at Auschwitz, I might feel different.  After all this time though, I’m not sure I would.  This woman’s incarceration won’t bring back the dead or put wrongs right.  Will the imprisonment of this old woman really persuade future regimes, future dictators, future maniacs with poisonous ideologies, future populations that have to live under them, to reconsider?  I can’t see that it will.

I do believe that there will come a day, and it can’t be very far off, that she will have to stand before a Judge and give an accounting of her life, and I do not and cannot know what the verdict will be.  However, I see no point and no profit for anyone in conducting a prosecution that seems to me to be far more about revenge than about justice, not for her, for the victims of Auschwitz, or for those prosecuting her.

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