Tuesday, August 10, 2004

War crimes

A retired Sharon steelworker is accused of having been a Nazi SS concentration camp died, and his neighbors are understandably upset to learn that someone they regarded as a good neighbor may have been complicit in the systematic extermination of millions of innocent people. The man, Anton Geiser, 79, faces deportation; here's what one neighbor had to say:

"I can't believe they're doing this to these great people. ... Sixty years later you're going to persecute this poor guy?"

Sorry, there's no statute of limitations on murder, and certainly none on genocide. Last night on television news I heard someone offer the classic defense on Geiser's behalf: He was only following orders. First, we don't know whether these accusations are true, and like every U.S. citizen--he still is a citizen--he is innocent until proven guilty. But if he did serve in the death camps, then he has no defense. The war crimes trials following World War II established that soldiers are not relieved of their responsibility for committing illegal or immoral acts merely because they were following the orders of a superior. It's the same defense offered by some of the U.S. soldiers accused of abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib. You don't exchange your conscience for your uniform.

Having said that, what happened at Abu Ghraib is a reminder of why we should wage war reluctantly, and only when necessary. War is dehumanizing, and it can lead even good men and women to do bad things. We've all heard stories from grandparents, uncles and other relatives who fought in World War II of Japanese prisoners burned alive, of German prisoners whose tongues were cut off when they stuck them out at their captors. That war we had to fight; the one in Iraq, we did not. Here's hoping that in the future, our leaders, whoever they may be, can recognize the difference.


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