Monday, June 24, 2013

Prosecuting a Relic

It has been discovered that there lurks in Minnesota a former member of a Ukrainian unit of the Waffen SS.  "Discovered" may not be the appropriate word, as this 94 year old man demonstrated a noteworthy lack of intelligence by deciding at one point in his long life to write a memoir in which he described his membership in that infamous organization, thus alerting the world to his existence and his past.  Perhaps it wasn't mere stupidity to do so, however.  Perhaps he is inclined to confess misdeeds, is remarkably honest, or is actually proud of this fact.

"Prosecuting" is not the appropriate word, either...yet.  A formal investigation has been opened by German authorities.  News accounts indicate that thus far there is no evidence of his participation in atrocities, though it seems there is some evidence that he was "in the area" where certain of them took place.  But his example inclines me to speculate regarding why he is being formally investigated and the purpose of any prosecution should it take place.  Of course, there is also the recent example of an actual prosecution regarding a man who died at the age of 91 while appealing his conviction for being a guard at one of the camps.

Just what would a prosecution accomplish?  It is unclear how "punishment" would apply in the case of a 94 year old.  It may be there is not much he could be deprived of at this point.  I've seen nothing regarding his physical or mental condition.  If he is ill or infirm in either respect then transporting him to Germany, putting him through a trial and imprisoning him may further impair his body and his mind, but if his capacity to appreciate punishment, as it were, has been diminished due to age, this may not be significant.  If he is in whatever it is may be "good" condition for 94 years, his condition would still presumably be made worse.  But how much worse?  And it seems that the idea of punishing a 94 year old is discomforting in some sense.  It isn't comparable to punishing a child, I suppose, as the punishment would be more severe.  However there is something which strikes us (strikes me, in any case) as wrong or at least inappropriate about punishing someone old and weak. 

Can it be maintained that prosecution and any resulting penalty would be appropriate as a deterrence in this case?  Well, it's very unlikely anyone would be deterred from joining an SS unit as a result, as there are none to be joined.   However, there may well be similar organizations at large in the world today.  It's unclear to me that they would be deterred, though, by the punishment of someone whose crimes, if any, were committed in the 1940s.  They may not care what their fate would be when they're in their 90s; they may think it likely they won't live that long.  Those Nazis who may still live likely will not change their conduct now in any fashion, except to struggle to be less conspicuous than they may already be.  Is there deterrence value in the knowledge that the long arm of the law will extend and ensnare even 70 years into the future, for certain crimes at least?  I don't know.  Do we want to premise prosecution and punishment now, after so long, on the mere speculation there will be a deterrence?

Perhaps it can be maintained that the crimes of the Nazi regime and its accessories were so vile and of such magnitude that prosecution and punishment is, in a sense, inherently necessary, i.e. regardless of consequences and regardless of the age or the condition of the defendant.  That would be to paint with a rather broad brush, though.  Individuals may have been Nazis who did nothing culpable.  It isn't apparent one should be punished merely because he was a Nazi long ago.  Punishment should be based on individual acts, crimes. 

What if it can be established that he did participate in atrocities?  Well, let's say someone, 94 years old, can be shown to have murdered someone in the 1940s, not as a member of an SS unit or an auxiliary of the SS, but in the course of a robbery.  What resources would be devoted to investigating, prosecuting and imprisoning him now?  Should he be prosecuted?

At what point does punishment become torture, justice mere revenge?  At the point where they have no purpose but to cause harm, particularly to the elderly?  Is that their purpose in the case of this man?

These considerations should come into play in determining action to be taken.  If they do not, then it may be that pursuing this old Nazi may actually make him a sympathetic figure.

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