Will This Be on the Test?

Over at Tim Newman’s, an interesting two part (so far) discussion of the upcoming trial of a 93-year-old former concentration camp guard in Germany.  Newman’s position is that this is just virtue-signaling, as no meaningful “justice” can be meted out to a nonagenarian for things he did as a 17-year-old draftee under one of the world’s most notoriously repressive regimes.  That’s debate-worthy in itself, but much more telling is fact that so few people seem to grasp what his position actually is.

If I had to teach something like this to undergrads, I’d have to use a hypothetical (because of the Nazi thing.  They can’t spell “Nazi,” but they can’t ignore it).  Making things as clear-cut as possible: New evidence, DNA or whatever, has come to light about a string of coed killings back in the early 1940s.  It turns out there’s this guy, call him “Pierre Delecto,” who was responsible for them all.  It’s open-and-shut.  But here’s the catch: Pierre Delecto is nearly 100 years old.  He’s been planted in the vegetable ward of a nursing home since 2004, and in 2013 he slipped into a coma from which he can never recover.

Now: What do we do with Pierre the Ripper?

After a little prodding, some of the more intrepid students would probably venture the idea that justice is in some sense time-bound.  Not because Justice, capital-J, isn’t a universal principle — maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, take my buddy’s PHIL 101 class to find out — but because justice, small-j, human justice, is all we can do in this world.  Students, especially cute little sorority girls, can be shockingly callous when they’re allowed to let the PC mask slip.  One of them would no doubt ask what the point of doing anything to this guy is?  He’s all but dead anyway.  Giving him the chair would speed things up, what, maybe a month or two?  Just drop the case.

Building off that, we’d eventually get around to the notion of revenge.  Small-j justice, we’d have to conclude, has something like revenge in it.  Pierre the Ripper might not know he’s being executed, but the victims’ families would know…. But see above: It was 75 years ago.  The girls’ parents are dead.  Many of their siblings, if they had them, are dead.  Even if we suppose that a few of the victims had children, it’s a fair bet that some of them are dead, and even if they aren’t, they’re senior citizens by now.  What could their relationship possibly be, to someone who was killed when they were infants three quarters of a century ago?  Even Inigo Montoya, we might suppose, would let it go once he got into his 80s.

Which might bring us, finally, to the notion that small-j justice is, Plato-style, an imperfect reflection of big-J Justice.  If there is such a thing as big-J Justice, then perhaps we are duty-bound to serve it as best we can.  We’re obligated to somehow give Pierre the Ripper due process of law, and, once we reach the inevitable conclusion, to carry out the prescribed penalty for his crimes, whether he or anyone directly affected by them knows it or not.  An interesting question, that, and here’s where I’d slip the Nazis back in:

Let’s say that goofy conspirazoid show on the History Channel was right, and Hitler somehow hoofed it out of the bunker.  He’s now cooling his heels in Argentina or wherever.  So one night you’re visited by Raguel the Angel, who offers you the following deal: You can kill Hitler, with no consequences to yourself, BUT no one will ever know.  Do you do it?

If you instinctively answered “yes,” then it seems you’re on board with capital-J Justice.  If not… well, maybe you’re still on board with big-J Justice, but it isn’t what you thought it was.  Small-j justice certainly isn’t, because we’ve already concluded that something like revenge is a part of it.  If nobody knows the guy’s dead, can even small-j justice really have been served?

I don’t know the answer to any of this stuff, and since I’m retired — thank you, Buddha! — I’ll never have a chance to run through it with a class of undergrads.  But I do know this: Whatever my hypothetical class of undergrads would’ve concluded re: Pierre the Ripper, it wouldn’t have mattered in the slightest when applied to the real-world case of former concentration camp guard Bruno Dey.

For today’s kids, it’s a standardized test question:

  • Was the guy in the SS or not?  If yes, then
  • Was the guy actually at the concentration camp or not?  If yes, then
  • He’s guilty of everything that went on there, full stop.

It’s “justice” via flowchart.  The “givens” of the “problem” — and students actually do use those terms, about essay assignments in history classes — are simple.  The SS is bad (they’d probably convict him on that alone, if we’re being honest), and concentration camps were the worst thing ever, so it’s a no-brainer.  All that stuff up there, about big J’s and small j’s and time and whatnot?  Doesn’t matter.  The guy was a Nazi.  A draftee Nazi, sure, with no meaningful choice in the matter… but see the comments on Newman’s pieces for that.  Nazi, dude.  Not-zee.  End of story.

They’ve been trained their entire lives to find the right answer on the standardized test, and this one’s a fuckin’ gimme.  Now consider that this mentality determines carries over to law school, medical school, the military, the police academy….

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13 thoughts on “Will This Be on the Test?

  1. Pickle Rick

    Oh, this should be juicy. See where I went with that? I’ll hit this after I get out of the woods. I’m bear hunting.

    1. Severian Post author

      Man, I REALLY hope I don’t see this headline in tomorrow’s paper: “Man killed by bear while commenting on obscure blog.”

      1. Pickle Rick

        Hahahaha nope. But he did touch the Great Unaskable Question – why has no Soviet citizen ever been dragged out of the nursing home for any of Stalin’s crimes?

  2. The Right Doctor

    Related, but not racial or even Nazi-referencing, but another one for class discussion. I knew a doctor who was the director of emergency services for the biggest county in one of our western states. Before that he’d worked at and run the big public-hospital ER for decades. He was in his 60s.

    Then it was found out that he’d never gone to medical school. (This used to be more common than it is now. I have personally known three ‘doctors’ who pulled this off for more than a decade, claiming to have graduated in Mexico or the Caribbean. They still had to pass all of the licensing exams the rest of us took.)

    The question is, after a doctor has been practicing for decades and no-one has noticed anything or raised a fuss, and has in fact performed at a decent standard in positions with a lot of exposure, what does it matter?

    Certainly it makes him a liar. These days though, it makes him Hitler. (I knew I could get there!)

    1. Severian Post author

      As a historian, I have no problem with this. Medicine, like law, used to be an apprenticeship job. You follow an experienced doctor / lawyer around, read all his books, and when you feel ready, you take the exams. You pass, you’re in. Either the exams cover everything a practitioner needs, in which case who cares how you came by the knowledge?, or they don’t, in which case what good are they?

  3. WOPR

    On the actual trial of former German camp guards, one gets the impression that once the last guard is dead it will be time to go after the descendants of those whose forefathers escaped justice. Actually, I hate to call it justice, because it isn’t.

    Plop the same kids in Nazi Germany to be educated for decade or even a year. They would be applying the same flowchart justice to the Jews. Do they even understand why the Nazis were bad? Or is it like slavery where it is simply “Slavery is wrong?”

    Slightly OT, I read a couple of books on the German view of D-Day that had interviews done in the 50’s with some common soldiers. Shockingly, to anyone who understands nothing, the German view of the war was far different from the Ally view.

    1. Martinian

      “Plop the same kids…”

      This is precisely the idea that got me to sit up and take notice when Jordan Peterson started to make a name for himself, i.e., that he tried to hammer into his Freshman Psych students the bitter truth that, had we all grown up in 1920s/30 Germany, by far most of us would have eaten up the Nazi line with no problem whatsoever. Kids these days just can’t handle that; they’re too ingrained in the masturbatorily circular logic of internet self-affirmation: “If I condemn ‘bad’ things, then I will be a ‘good’ person. If I’m a ‘good’ person, then I will condemn ‘bad’ things.” The words are empty, though. Like their souls.

      I don’t know the answer to this. Some people might say that it portends a collapse of civilization, which may very well happen, but I doubt that for the following reason: The rot has seeped into the groundwater of mass culture, while the elites have by and large preserved their own (albeit hypocritical) stable, self-perpetuating standards. In other words, how much would you bet that Drag Queen Story Hour isn’t foisted upon the pupils of Sidwell Friends? Do you think their math curriculum centers on stories of oppression and cultural appropriation? Nah, brah, that’s for the proles.

      I vaguely recall reading a couple decades ago about some French postmodern sociologist (Lyotard or Baudrillard or some such) in maybe the 70s or 80s who claimed that in the near future we would essentially be living in a freedom-less Matrix-like world. People criticized him by saying that his vision was too bleak, and that sci-fi was more “realistic” because it actually provided hope for the triumph of the human spirit to break out of such totalitarian strictures…

      …I dunno. I think I’m gonna have to revisit that material, since it seems to have been all too prescient.

      1. WOPR

        I kind of agree. The elites try to avoid what they preach. Let’s say they were perfectly able to do that. The top 1-5% can’t run a civilization. If 95% of your population is propagandized idiots, you aren’t going to have lights or running water. Elites who forget that end up ruling over rubble.

        The thing is, our elites in general aren’t too bright.

  4. P_Ang

    Know nothing of the guy, or the case. However, like a typical person with an opinion I’m gonna spout my mind anyway. In regards to the SS…probably not. The SS were…at the start and throughout all but the very end of the war…elites (or at least trained and treated as such.) I don’t doubt that there might have been a trainee or draftee admitted, but typically Jews (with a few RARE exceptions that kept things very, VERY quiet or were wildly anti-Semitic), non-Germans, ex-felons, commies, gays, draftees, and homeless San Franciscoans were not permitted to wear the death’s head or be tattooed under the armpit with their “member number.” So evil concentration camp guard? Sure, good possibilities there. SS member? I’d have to say no, unless he’s lying about the draftee thing.

    1. WOPR

      He got drafted towards the end of the war and medically wasn’t considered capable for combat. Putting him in as some camp guard makes sense. The SS didn’t care as it freed up physically able men.

  5. Publius

    As the old World at War documentary summed it up, at the end of the episode about Germany’s defeat: “The cruelty of Hitler’s Reich had to be paid for. It was the ordinary Germans who paid.”

  6. MBlanc46

    Happy to see that I’m not the only follower of Tim Newman who also hangs out around here. Not surprised, but happy. Regarding the question at hand, we have statutes of limitations for most crimes. To persecute a 93 year old for something that he was ordered to do when he was 17 in wartime is simply perverse. Unfortunately, there are few things too perverse for contemporary Western elites. Regarding revenge in justice, of course revenge is, always has been, and always will be part of justice. One of my favorite lines lines from literature is from Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five”. Paul Lazzaro, from Cicero, Illinois—not too far from where I’ve lived most of my life, the hometown of my best friend’s father, and known to most people because of its association with Al Capone—after a long speech on the subject of revenge says, “‘Anybody ever asks you what the sweetest thing in life is—‘ said Lazzaro, ‘it’s revenge.”’ Not everyone would agree that it’s the sweetest thing, but everyone knows that it’s very sweet. Anyone who says otherwise is lying, either to you, to himself, or both.

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