Individual Responsibility: the Salvation of Our Species?
[For a brief note on the capture of Ratko Mladić in Serbia, click here.]
I don’t mean to slight Ireland’s heartwarming reception for our President, or the GOP’s attempt to turn the economic equivalent of a nuclear holocaust—a financial default by the world’s leading economy—into a political football. But something else is going on in the world today. It is so important that, for me at least, it dwarfs everything else.
It lives in the Arab Spring, which is one reason why I’ve devoted so much ink to Arab Liberation (see, for example, 1, 2, 3 4, and 5). But what I have in mind is only a part of that movement, and its implications go far beyond the Arab and Muslim world. If it continues on its present course, it will change human history forever, and much for the better.
It got its modern start at Nuremberg, at the end of World War II. There the victorious Allies tried and convicted the top leaders of Nazi Germany—at least those who had survived the war and had not committed suicide—for crimes against humanity.
The greatest legal minds in America participated in the trial. They collected and painstakingly recorded evidence of Nazi leaders’ crimes and broadcast it to the world.
But what were the crimes? Were they starting a war and prosecuting it with uncommon cleverness and vigor, although ultimately losing? Were they belatedly seeking colonial power and additional territory for the “Fatherland,” i.e., Lebensraum (German for “[more] living space”)?
Not really. Humans had being doing those things throughout recorded history. That’s why many Germans at the time dismissed the Nuremberg trials as just another example of victors writing the records.
But the skeptics, both inside and outside of Germany, missed the point. The Nuremberg trials focused on something else entirely: the deliberate and massive slaughter of innocent noncombatants, in what we now know as the Holocaust. The chief goal of the Nuremberg trials was to show the world that: (1) the Holocaust actually happened; (2) it was not a figment of fevered imaginations or the victors’ propaganda; and (3) surviving top Nazi leaders were personally responsible for it, i.e., had known about it and in most cases had approved, ordered, or even planned it.
The Ten Commandments say, “Thou shalt not kill.” Yet war was (and still is) a tacit exception. Tribalism and nationalism have “justified” murder since we humans lived in caves in clans. But killing innocent civilians, let alone “your own,” is different. It’s murder, plain and simple, under virtually every code of military justice since the Renaissance.
The last century saw a lot of killing of innocents. Hitler and Stalin murdered tens of millions of their own people for no greater purpose than consolidating their absolute or “totalitarian” political power. Both the Axis and the Allies murdered hundreds of thousands of innocent enemy civilians in “blitzkrieg” or bombing campaigns—the Germans in their rape of Eastern Europe and V-2 attacks on London, the Japanese in their rape of China, and we and our Allies in the fire-bombing of Dresden and Tokyo and the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The morals of the times could and did excuse these attacks. In the context of “total war” prevailing at the time, civilian casualties—even in huge numbers—were a regrettable but unintended consequence, what we today would call “collateral damage.” And anyway, weren’t civilian makers of such things as munitions and military vehicles as much a apart of the war effort as soldiers?
But killing one’s own always was (and is) different.
Make no mistake about it. Notwithstanding their (mostly) Jewish religion, the vast majority of the six million deliberately murdered in the Holocaust were Germans. The murdered Jews spoke German and Yiddish, which resembles German more than any other language and is practically a dialect of German. They loved German science, poetry, music and literature. They had worked hard to become an integral part of the commercial culture of a vibrant, capable and hard-working people.
That’s why so few German Jews fled Nazi Germany in time to save themselves. They could not believe—practically until they stepped into the ovens—that the efficient, educated and supremely civilized country and culture that they had adopted, and that had in turn adopted them, would turn against them so savagely and without good cause.
So however much Nazi propaganda tried to set the Jews apart as scapegoats for internal political purposes, they were Germans. And therefore the Holocaust was human history’s most egregious example of killing your own. The fact that this mass murder of one’s own people occurred during the greatest armed conflict in human history merely obscured the issue. But the Nuremberg trials recognized and illuminated the distinction.
Nazi Germany was not entirely alone. Stalin murdered millions of innocent Russians and other Soviets citizens before, during and after World War II. Pol Pot’s sui-genocide of the Cambodian people is still under investigation and trial. And Mao also murdered millions of noncombatant Chinese, although he had the plausible excuse of civil war and its aftermath for many of his homicides.
In light of these horrible precedents, what is now happening in the Arab Spring is truly extraordinary. Ordinary people, en masse, are beginning to hold tyrants personally to account for murdering innocents among their own in much, much smaller numbers. That’s why the upcoming trial of Hosni Mubarak and his sons in Egypt has world-historical significance comparable to Nuremberg’s.
There are, of course, more recent precedents than Nuremberg. International courts have chewed on murders of their own people by such strongmen as Slobodan Milošević, Charles Taylor and Laurent Gbagbo. But, while the International Criminal Court itself marks a vital advance in human civilization (nonetheless for our refusal to join it), what is about to happen in Egypt goes yet a step further.
There Egypt’s own people will hold a tyrant who was a legitimate and long-time national leader personally responsible for attempting to maintain his power by murdering innocents among his own. Not even China, with its exaggerated respect for national sovereignty, could object to such a proceeding, for its impetus is internal, not foreign.
Does this trial portend the end of national government? Does it threaten anarchy, rule by rabble? Of course not. If this precedent “takes,” it will reflect only a narrow new consensus among our species. It will make mass murder of innocents among one’s own people, for political purposes, a crime against humanity. It does not even address “softer” means of maintaining tyranny, such as the numerous detentions and house arrests now common in China and Myanmar.
Nevertheless, this innovation has signal importance. It recognizes the strength of the human spirit and the fragility of the human body.
Nelson Mandela emerged from nearly 28 years in prison to lead his nation from Apartheid to an imperfect but thriving democracy. Imagine what South Africa would be like today if some misguided tyrant had had him murdered in prison!
Murder is different from any other crime because it is irrevocable. There is no calling a dead innocent back, no matter how sincere the perpetrator’s regret or how genuine his change of heart. And there is no telling what dead innocent might have emulated Nelson Mandela and become one of human history’s greatest leaders.
So murder in numbers for political purposes requires a unique and uniquely forceful societal response. It needs outlawing.
Nuremberg and the International Criminal Court suggest that the response may be international. That’s all well and good. But the response is best if it arises from the very people whom the murders abused. That is precisely what Egypt’s new government proposes to do.
I have written how the advent of nuclear weapons has made war obsolete, at least major wars among major powers. Of course there may be smaller wars among minor powers, most likely (still) in the Middle East. Or a rogue non-state actor like bin Laden may precipitate a war by murdering innocents (which is why our recent assassination’s example of personal responsibility is salutary).
But the nuclear deterrent is likely to prevent any repetition of the enormous, senseless carnage of the last century. If Egypt can establish the principle of individual accountability for internal political murder at scale, then we humans can begin to conceive of a world in which reason and persuasion replace homicidal terror as tools of politics.
Every child studies ancient Egypt as part of human history. The Pharaohs had a high level of civilization for their time, but ordinary people had no say in it. It would be fitting and proper—a sort of closing human circle—for modern Egypt to establish the principle that leaders, no matter how powerful or accepted, cannot maintain their power by murdering their own, and that if they do so, they must bear personal, individual responsibility for their acts, just as at Nuremberg.
Another Butcher Faces Trial
No, I don’t have inside information. My posting the foregoing essay the night before news broke of Ratko Mladić’s capture was sheer coincidence. But what a beautiful coincidence!
Mladić, you may recall, was the last holdout among the Serbian butchers’ triumvirate. Slobodan Milošević, the prime mover behind ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, died in prison awaiting trial for war crimes at the Hague. Radovan Karadžić, who is about to be tried for war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), was president of Republika Srpska. He is accused of attempting to “purify” that nascent nation ethnically by making war, primarily upon unarmed civilians.
Mladić was the reportedly talented general who actually carried out the program of ethnic cleansing. He is accused of killing ten thousand in the siege of Sarajevo and of ordering the massacre of nearly 8,000 bound and unarmed Bosnian men and boys, all Muslims, after promising they would not be harmed. My own mid-2008 essay gives a pale reflection of just how bad these three were.
While Mladić’s capture may give survivors of his victims some comfort, there are three reasons why it is far from a pure example of personal accountability. First, it took fifteen years to capture him. It is simply inconceivable that, in a country as small and as close-knit as Serbia, the authorities did not know where he was. Apparently a significant number of Serbs, even today, view this beast as a national hero.
Second, Serbia’s impending turnover of Mladić to international justice hardly reflected deep understanding of the benefits of individual accountability for political mass murder. Serbia wants—and desperately needs—admission to the EU for economic and social reasons, and the EU has insisted on delivery of war criminals as the price of admission. An EU emissary was on her way to Serbia, probably to emphasize that condition, when Mladić’s capture was announced. In addition, the chief prosecutor at the ICTY was due (in June) to issue a written report citing Serbia for dragging its heels in meeting that condition.
Thus, while it’s always good to see political mass murderers brought to justice, Mladić's case is hardly evidence of Serbia seeing the light. Rather, it’s evidence of the effectiveness of economic pressure, tantamount to bribery, that more civilized parts of the world can bring to bear on isolated, primitive societies still wistful about the Middle Ages.
Egypt’s proposed trial of its tyrant and his sons remains the one to watch. Unlike Serbia’s butchers and even the Nazis, Mubarak lacked the lame excuse of ethnic differences for killing one’s own. There is no question that nearly all the hundreds of demonstrators murdered by forces loyal to him were Egyptians and Muslims. More important, no one outside is imposing the upcoming trial in Egypt on the Egyptian people. It’s their own idea.
So Egypt promises the “pure case.” On their very own initiative, a people with a distinguished ancient history will bring to account political mass murderers of their own. And they will do so without the complications of ethnic or religious sectarianism. This pure example is sure to make history and advance the cause of human civilization.