For the last few days, I’ve been challenging myself to say precisely why the death of Osama Bin Laden has not triggered in me personally the same jubilation that it appears to have sparked in the large majority of our countrymen and, indeed, in people all around the world. Partially, perhaps, his death almost seemed anti-climactic, coming as it did in the wake of an amazing winter and spring during which huge swaths of the Muslim world turned decisively away from the docile acceptance of totalitarian rule and, by standing up to demand the basic rights and freedoms we Americans so often—too often—take for granted, appeared publicly and forcefully to be repudiating the kind of fanatic islamicism associated with Bin Laden and his ilk. And partially I suppose it had to do with the sad truth that his death will not bring back to life any of the 2,977 people who died on the ground and in the air in New York, Washington, and Shanksville on that September day almost ten years ago. But I suppose I regret most deeply of all that the fiend responsible for so much misery and for so many deaths—and it would not be unreasonable also to add to our losses on 9/11 all those others who have died in the War Against Terrorism since 2001 in Iraq and Afghanistan, by some estimates as many as 1.2 million civilians along with almost six thousand American servicemen and women—I regret that the man who bore the personal responsibility for loss on that kind of scale was not taken alive and brought to trial.
By that thought, I do not mean to second guess the Navy SEALs who conducted the raid in Abbottabad by supposing both with the luxury of hindsight and from a very safe distance that they should or could have exerted themselves more strenuously to take their prisoner alive. Lacking even the most rudimentary knowledge of how military actions like that are conducted and disinclined always to question the integrity of our troops, the last thing I wish to imply is that the SEALs should have done differently or better. Yet, for all the outcome may have been unavoidable, I still find myself regretting that it didn’t turn out otherwise, that Bin Laden was executed not upon being apprehended but after having been found guilty in a court of law or in a military tribunal. As I mentioned to you last week, one of the movies that influenced me the most deeply during my adolescence was Stanley Kramer’s 1961 film, Judgment at Nuremberg starring Maximillian Schell, Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Judy Garland, and many others including Marlene Dietrich and a young William Shatner. The movie, which featured actual footage of concentration camp atrocities taken by American soldiers after those camps were liberated, was the one of the first major movies with a Shoah theme and it affected me in a way that few other movies ever have. The plot itself was fictionalized—and the movie is specifically not based on the actual Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders and ideologues that took place in 1945 and 1946, but on a secondary trial of four Nazi judges that took place in 1947—but the moral lessons of the movie, that no one is above the law, that even individuals accused of the most heinous crimes against humanity have the right to defend themselves in court, and that the agony of the Nazis’ victims specifically did not obviate the need to bring their murderers to justice rather than merely to murder them in the same summary fashion in which they murdered those victims, are what impressed me the most deeply.
If you haven’t considered Nuremberg in a while, take a look at a contemporary American newsreel made in 1946 just after sentence was pronounced against the twenty-four defendants by clicking here. I’ve seen it before. I just watched it again. No one feels more strongly—no one could feel more strongly—than I that death was, if anything, too lenient a punishment for the authors of such unspeakable aggression against the Jewish people and against so many millions of others. And yet I find myself beyond moved by the fact that when the guns fell silent and Europe was at peace, the natural desire of all civilized people to punish the guilty was subjugated to a deeper sense that justice could only truly be pursued by prosecutors in a court of law. Would Hitler himself have been in the dock at Nuremberg had he not taken his own life? Surely he would have been, as equally surely would have been Himmler and Goebbels. In a sense, I regret that the three of them did not stand trial and that they had the luxury of choosing the hour and circumstance of their own deaths; that should have been denied to them just as they themselves denied to their victims. But even without them the trial at Nuremberg stands in my mind for the ultimate victory of civilization over anarchy, and of human decency over bestial depravity. If you haven’t watched Judgment at Nuremberg lately, or if some of my younger readers have never seen it, you should. I believe you will find it just as deeply moving as I did.
I feel the same way about Hideki Tojo, the Prime Minister of wartime Japan who was not only responsible for Pearl Harbor but also for the murder of millions of civilians in China, the Philippines, and Indochina, as well as for the deaths of tens of thousands of Allied prisoners-of-war. He attempted to commit suicide before he could be arrested, but was unsuccessful—there is some gruesome irony in the fact that a man responsible for the deaths of so many millions could not quite manage to kill himself even though his doctor had drawn a charcoal circle on his chest over his heart—and was brought to trial, then convicted and sentenced to death in November, 1948. The sentence was carried out the following month. Why Emperor Hirohito himself was not tried as a war criminal as well, I can’t personally understand. But what matters to me the most personally is not whether any specific individual was or was not tried, but that in post-war Japan just as in Germany the rule of law was deemed sacred and even the worst war criminals, Tojo included, were not just shot, but given a fair trial and then executed after having been sentenced to death.
And, of course, I feel the same way about Eichmann. Last week, I wrote to you about the effect reading Gideon Hausner and Isser Harel’s books had on me as a young person and about the pride they instilled in the me. But that pride was not only in the daring and the expertise of the Israelis who successfully tracked Eichmann to Argentina and then spirited him back to Israel for trial, but in the fact itself that they did not simply shoot him upon finding him. Surely, they could have. They probably could also have managed to cover up the murder and make it look like some sort of crime that got out of hand. They could have done a lot of things, but the Israelis understood that simply to shoot a man like Eichmann would have been far too easy a way out for him. A man with the blood of millions on his hands needed not merely to be executed, but to stand trial, to be forced in a court of law to explain himself, to attempt to defend himself…or, if he preferred, to admit to his guilt and throw himself on the mercy of the court. In either event, he would have ended up dead. But as things played out, his death was not merely justice for his victims, but also catharsis for the rest of us. By extending to him the basic human right to mount a defense against his accusers that he would never have dreamt of according his own victims, Israel distinguished itself as a state motivated by the quest for justice, not merely for revenge. It was among Israel’s finest hours. I wrote last week about watching the trial over these last few weeks on youtube, an activity I continue to recommend to you. (You can see the trial in the original here and with an English voiceover here.) It is upsetting viewing, to be sure. But it is also ennobling and deeply satisfying to see justice take its course.
And that is what I would have wished for Bin Laden as well. I would have welcomed the opportunity to hear a case built against him, for him to have been granted the right to speak in his own defense, for him to be treated precisely as people put on trial in democracies should always be treated. Once convicted, I imagine he would have been sentenced to death. Of course, the outcome would have been the same. But the death I would have preferred for Bin Laden would have been so much the more satisfying one precisely because it would have come as punishment not as avoidable/unavoidable happenstance.
I suppose my reluctance to be overjoyed over the circumstances of Bin Laden’s death puts me in tiny minority of Americans. And surely I am beyond pleased to know that one of our most dangerous enemies has been permanently neutralized and his ability to harm others just as permanently ended. I just wish he had met his end after having been forced by a court to accept the full responsibility for his bad deeds and for the misery and suffering he brought to so many in our country and abroad, not in a hail of bullets. In the end, what’s done is done. But I challenge you to watch or to re-watch Judgment at Nuremberg and not regret that it was Osama bin Laden’s fate to be cut down while resisting arrest rather than tried and convicted in a court of justice.