Sunday, May 22, 2011

Fitting the punishment to the crime

Long-time p3 correspondent Doctor Beyond recently sent me a link to this story:

German court finds former Nazi guard guilty of 27,900 deaths

Munich, May 12 (IANS/RIA Novosti) A court in Munich Thursday found 91-year-old Ukraine-born Ivan Demjanjuk guilty of helping to kill at least 27,900 Jews at a Nazi extermination camp in 1943.

Demjanjuk was drafted into the Soviet army in 1940 and was serving in eastern Crimea in 1942 when he was captured by the Germans. He was then inducted as a guard at the Sobibor concentration camp in occupied Poland.

Prosecutors said Demjanjuk was involved in the murders of at least 27,900 Jews at the camp between March and September 1943.

Demjanjuk was deported from the US to Israel in 1986 to face allegations that he had served as a camp guard nicknamed ‘Ivan the Terrible’ at the Treblinka death camp. However, this accusation could not be proven.

The Munich trial began in November 2009. Demjanjuk attended the 18-month court proceedings in a wheelchair and sometimes lying down, with his family trying to argue that he was too infirm to stand trial.

The court Thursday sentenced him to five years in prison.

Dr. B added this comment:

"I would love to know the thinking behind this sentencing. On one hand, it seems way too lenient, and on the other it seems completely futile."

Indeed: Five years for 27,900 deaths works out to about one day in prison for every 15 deaths he helped bring about -- and that's assuming the 91-year-old Demjanjuk survives five more years.

I remember when the contested deportation for trial from the US to Israel made it a newsworthy story here (the "Ivan the Terrible" nickname helped attract media notice).

My sense is that Germany's efforts to distance itself from the Nazi years, while sincerely meant, are nevertheless doomed to produce absurdities like this.

For another example: German law makes it a crime to deny that the Holocaust took place. No person with a functioning moral compass can fail to sympathize, but that law really is the reductio ad absurdum of speech-control laws. Can you imagine how empty the streets in America would be if we could arrest people for saying something that everyone knows is factually and historically incorrect? (Let alone what it would be like if we could arrest people for saying something that everyone merely "knows" is factually and historically incorrect?) Even if it was something of astonishing malice or cruelty?

So yes, I sympathize with Germans' feelings about their 20th century history, and I'm also glad it continues to bother them so much; and I certainly have no sympathy for Demjanjuk, who by everything I've read is still an ugly piece of work even if he'd been innocent of all those deaths. But this does make German law look a little foolish.

What Demjanjuk did was horrible. The fact that he's still alive and apparently unrepentant (or was, in articles I read at the time of his extradition) makes it all feel even worse, of course. The usual justifications for the death penalty hardly work here (to deter other Nazi death camp workers in the future?). But the fact is that we probably can't create laws that will deal appropriately with someone who would participate in the killing of 27,900 human beings.

Or, for that matter, someone who would orchestrate the killing of 2977 human beings -- which brings us to the assassination of Osama bin Ladin. I'm not a fan of presidential power to order killings, and I'm in favor of putting captured terrorists on trial on US soil, But I suppose you can reach a point where there really are some crimes that you just can't design a punishment to fit.

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