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….Loading Likes...