Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Face of Evil.

After more than 40 years of searching, an international manhunt for Aribert Heim, a notorious doctor from the Nazi concentration camps and one of the most wanted Nazi war criminals has zeroed in on a stretch of the Mediterranean coast of Spain, according to Spanish police officials.

Renwick McLean, "Spanish Police Say 40-Year Manhunt is Zeroing In on Nazi Concentration Camp Doctor," in The New York Times, October 26, 2005, at p. A12.

Why is justice so important after 40 years?

There was a time in the history of our civilization when people felt that there was a moral fabric to our lives, so that great evil operates as a kind of rupture or wound in the collective moral and psychic space shared by all of us.

Think of the idea of a "law of nature." Hamlet sees the murder of his father as "something rotten in the state of Denmark" and speaks of the time being "out of joint." Great and monstrous crimes call out for -- insist upon -- punishment. Such crimes are deeply felt by all moral persons in the community. The concentration camps have made all of us into victims, but also into witnesses and prosecutors. All of us will stand in that courtroom and point at this Nazi criminal, asking on behalf of those who are not here: "Why? How could you? What have you become?"

In the history of our species, no crime or horror compares with the Holocaust for monstrousness, for the sheer inhumanity of the atrocities committed over such a short span of time, also the indifference and clerical efficiency of the underlings carrying out the policy, which may be the most horrifying feature of the event. The only events that come close or equal this crime, over a much longer span of time, is African slavery.

The thoughtlessness of those who effectuated Hitler's nightmare vision of "a final solution of the Jewish problem" continues to disgust us. Underlying that hideous episode in our -- I said our -- history is the denial of humanity to an entire people whose crime was merely to be.

There is a dull-witted scientific reductivism and positivism revealed by the Holocaust that I find especially revolting, because it is still a popular attitude today. Physicians and other scientists tortured people because they were told to do so; lawyers and judges signed documents authorizing it; ordinary citizens cooperated in informing on their family members and neighbors, and accepted jobs in the camps. It was "nothing personal," they said. Please be personal in your encounters with others, with all others.

The science works just as well when we design a mechanism to drop a tablet into a gas chamber as when we design new automobiles and airplanes, said one "former" Nazi business leader. This is the glory of science, its predictability. Science is neutral, predictable, precise. No fuzzy talk of humanism or values gets in the way when we wish to design new weapons or come up with an efficient plan for the extermination of our neighbors.

Law was described by Eichman (and by Nazi jurists) as a matter of "adherence to rules." One's personal feelings did not enter into it. In a grotesque inversion of Kant, Eichman described his ethics in a Jerusalem courtroom as adherence to the "obligation" to obey his superiors, regardless of the consequences.

Both in law and science, in addition to technical competence, there is an urgent need for moral awareness and sensitivity. This sense of moral responsibility is, sadly, increasingly seen as dispensable today. It is replaced by a bogus concern with technical ethical rules that can often produce unjust results, if applied mechanically. Law is not simply a collection of rules, but also a set of norms and regulations with an ethical and political purpose. Law is, as Lon Fuller insisted, a purposeful activity.

Kantian ethics is actually concerned primarily with autonomy, with the self-legislation of the transcendental ego, whose foundational maxim of practical reason is the categorical imperative: "act so that the maxim of your actions may be willed as a universal law." Treat others as you would wish to be treated. It is the opposite of what Eichman took it to be. Eichman was silenced when confronted with these facts. I am sure that he would have said, in all sincerity, "some of my best friends are Jews."

For Kant, even if God tells you to do something, unless your own reason persuades you of the morality of the action, then it cannot be a truly moral action on your part. Kantian ethics is about autonomy and freedom, the objectivity and universality of your obligation to others. For Kant, also, the offender had a right to punishment, to the righting of wrongs, including his or her own.

Mr. Heim, born in Austria 91 years ago, is accused of torturing and killing hundreds of prisoners at the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria in 1941 and 1942. The crimes for which he is sought include injecting gasoline into the hearts of victims, conducting operations on prisoners without anesthesia and executing prisoners just to record how long they took to die.

"We can learn from you," Dr. Mengele said to his victims. Aribert Heim was a physician, thus adding to the nightmare quality of his actions. The use of training in medicine to hurt persons, to take lives or cause pain for non-medical reasons (like extracting information), is the ultimate betrayal of a physician's oath. It is a grotesque caricature of medical ethics for a doctor to serve the State's interests, at the expense of the patient's welfare and rights. Physicians must not become torturers. They must not use their training to design torture techniques for the State nor place their services under the supervision of bureaucrats.

In the same issue of The New York Times, I find an editorial focusing on the tortures at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, in which American physicians participated by designing the psychological techniques used to torment detainees, an editorial which criticizes the Administration for suggesting, allegedly, that the C.I.A. and not the Defense Department, should engage (secretly) in the torture of prisoners or "detainees." Secrecy is necessary when you wish to conceal the shameful nature of the State's actions. In its legal decisions and processes, the United States should never act secretly.

Approval of torture is to take a step towards becoming what that Nazi physician was and is, something less than fully human, a being who is ethically and spiritually dead. For torture affects torturers as much (or more) than victims. It destroys a person's moral faculties to be given unlimited power over others. Spiritually, torturers die long before they are captured and brought to trial.

We must never rest in the pursuit of justice against torturers. I never will.

In 1979, a Berlin court declared [Dr. Heim] a major war criminal and convicted him in absentia of killing scores of prisoners at the Mauthausen concentration camp, some out of "pure boredom."

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