Monday, July 13, 2009

Second, a question of guilt

No, this isn't my original piece of news. This is something else that came to mind. It seems that German prosecutors have formally charged John Demjanjuk with 27,900 Nazi charges. That is not a typo, and now I'm wondering if that number was rounded. He is suspected of being a guard at the death camp Sobibor. The man is 89 years old.

This reminds me of the Rat Line, or ratlines--a sort of underground railway for Nazis and fascists fleeing Europe. I first read about it in Ian Rankin's The Hanging Garden, an Inspector Rebus mystery, and the book brought up the issue of guilt, vengeance, and justice.

How do you prosecute someone after more than 60 years, and do you prosecute them? I think they must be prosecuted, because a crime is still a crime 60-odd years later. However, it's getting harder and harder to find evidence as records fade or get lost, witnesses die off or refuse to speak, and governments refuse to help because who knows what ugly truths might get uncovered. The small percentage of cases that can make it to court are even worse. Either they involve lesser criminals, or the evidence is inconclusive. So... where's justice? I think you have to hope there's an after-life, one where "'Vengeance is mine,' sayeth the Lord" is for real. Of course, justice and vengeance aren't the same thing, but... (Pst! Errant Knave, you're rambling.) Right.

On the other hand, modern justice systems are in place to protect the innocent, too. What if some of the accused are innocent? How would you like to have survived World War II (or any war), only to find yourself tried and maybe even found guilty of being the enemy you tried to resist? I don't think anyone wants that.

And then there's the third option, the murky one. The one where the accused committed his or her crimes under order, or even as a double-agent. To use a WWII example, what if you sided with the Allies, but lived in Nazi-occupied lands, and you had to fit in or be imprisoned or killed? How do you keep your innocence then?

There must be countless books on the subject, and movies too. Off the top of my head I can think of Europa Europa, Divided We Fall, and Black Book.(Odd... they're all foreign films.) I think The Reader may be about that too, but I haven't seen it yet, or read it, so someone let me know what the deal is.

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