Anniversary Post: Adolf Eichmann’s Execution

Adolf EichmannOn this day in 1962, Adolf Eichmann was executed. But they screwed up and he didn’t actually die until a couple of minutes past midnight on 1 June. Eichmann serves as a good example of the continued hunt for Nazis. In general, I’m not too keen on the process. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was clearly called for. But today, it seems strained as the pool of criminals has dried up and the wrongdoing decreased. I’m glad that Eichmann was brought to justice. But, of course, I think it was wrong to kill him. It’s interesting that people have claimed that if ever the death penalty should be applied, it should be applied to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. When I’ve heard that, I’ve been outraged. People have no sense of perspective. Eichmann’s crimes were almost unimaginably worse than Tsarnaev’s. Still, I don’t believe in killing other human beings — regardless of how horrible their crimes were. And Eichmann’s were indeed horrible.

I have frequent “tea dates” with my cousin Joan. We are similar in many ways, but where we differ is in the mercy-justice continuum. It’s a place where no one can ever get it right because there is no “right.” In looking at all the injustices of the world, there are always trade-offs between holding people accountable and forgiving them. And I greatly admire people like Joan who are out there every day fighting the good fight. My tendency is to understand where those people are coming from and just to accept that I could easily be the one acting as they do. Obviously, Joan too empathizes with others, and I too judge and hold people accountable. It’s just a question of tendencies. And the truth is that I often think of my tendency to quickly forgive may be just a sign of personal cowardice.

So in the case of Eichmann, I clearly come down on the side of justice. That one isn’t even close, because he was a public figure and society needed to say, “You don’t do this!” But with lesser figures, it is much harder for me. The case of Oskar Gröning seems ridiculous to me. Had he been found 30 years ago, I might think differently. Even today, he is hardly the worst around. So there is also the question of selective prosecution. And I continue to hear people complain that he doesn’t show remorse. You know who shows a lot of remorse? Psychopaths. They’re great at it!

But I understand that others fall somewhere else on this continuum and feel we must continue to seek justice against those who wronged in the past. But I’m glad that I am the way I am. Because ultimately, I don’t think the justice urge can ever be satisfied. There will never be enough justice. In fact, with every second that goes by, the justice deficit gets worse. But I doubt that punishing 90-something Nazis will really do anything to make genocide any less common. And I doubt that it will make the survivors feel any better. There are more effective ways to make the world a better place.

But Adolf Eichmann’s execution 53 years ago? It’s hard not to see that as an important justice.

11 thoughts on “Anniversary Post: Adolf Eichmann’s Execution

  1. One of the toughest questions. Age does come into it; so does sentience. Reagan did more damage to America, ultimately hurting and ending early more lives, than any traitor since Forrest. What would have been the point of punishing him? He was clearly insane even before the Alzheimer’s.

    That’s the thing with utter madmen. How do you get justice, or even vengeance (which is a fairly understandable desire for those who have had loved ones harmed/killed.) My dad’s a madman, literally (been in and out of hospitals for 30 years), whose damage to others I will never forgive. I can’t see the point of killing or shaming him. Being alive in his brain is torment enough for the bastard.

    For psychos with any grip on reality (and perhaps Eichmann was one), wouldn’t it be preferable to use the American prison model? It’s perhaps the only time that model should be used. Removal of all human rights and decency, constant humiliation until subjects either kill themselves or break down and submit to how authority wants them to think. But even then, that’s not creating real remorse, it’s just brainwashing like the world’s worst boot camp.

    I read a book recently about a kid in Utah who was texting while driving and accidentally killed several people with his car. The kid was devastated, and is now an activist going around the country trying to get laws passed banning texting & driving. His is a horrible story with a positive upside; real remorse has turned him into a serious force for good.

    Maybe a bad example, but that’s the only point I can see to public shaming; if, perhaps, you can turn the criminal into a voice against crime. An ex-Nazi who spoke against racism would be hugely valuable. Or imagine a former power banker who both detailed how his cohorts get away with fraud and rallied for new rules limiting financial power.

    Ultimately it’s really hard to think how we should mete out punishment. It’s not usually going to result in genuine remorse, and killing the offender solves very little. Most people we put in jail don’t deserve it and for the serious lunatics it’s tough to imagine what they would deserve. Maybe simple heavy sedation to keep them docile until they die.

    My instinct is to end this rant by saying “sure, but my landlord could use a few days in the public stocks!” Thinking about it a little, though, he’s basically a privileged crazy person like many others and I doubt anything would change him.

    Perhaps the most important thing is not deciding how to punish the crazy/evil (sedated for many years until death works fine for me) but figuring out how to keep them from having power to harm others in the first place. Rant over!

    • It’s interesting that a post about Eichmann brings Reagan immediately to mind! Are you referring to Nathan Bedford Forrest? How can he be a traitor?! We have statues of him all over the south!

      I’m not sure what we do with people like Eichmann. Certainly he didn’t seem to be a threat to society outside the context of the Nazis. So the “grizzly bear” approach doesn’t seem called for. But society must have standards; he must be punished. But I don’t even think humiliation is correct. Again, it is about us and not him. I don’t think the issue is remorse. It’s about conveying our disapproval. But I really don’t know.

      Things are different for kids, I think. Anyway, this Utah kid wasn’t malicious; he was just careless the way that all kids are, although with far worse consequences. On the other hand, this kid is, in a sense, getting a gift: a career — a purpose for life. He may do good, but is that right? I would argue that it is. But given how badly we treat most kids, it is hard to justify it at this time.

      Ultimately, however, I wonder if Eichmann isn’t a lesser villain than Dick Cheney. I have no doubt that under the same circumstances, Cheney would have behaved as badly or worse than Eichmann. I’m not sure that Eichmann would have been as much a villain as Cheney given his opportunities. I’ve been thinking of doing a little coding on the site to put up a “Dick Cheney Death Watch” counter. I really do look forward to his death. If I manage to outlive him (which is questionable), I will be really happy the day he dies.

      • Re-reading my rant, I’m surprised I didn’t mention Cheney. That’s who I was thinking about. And yet, what’s the point — except if you can get “Tramp The Dirt Down” made about them. If vengeful thoughts produce stunning art, I’m all in favor of vengeful thoughts.

        Although, I’d be surprised if Costello actually gave a shit when Thatcher died. He said what was important for him to say a long time earlier. I wish Cheney was pelted with rotten vegetables right this minute. By the time public opinion has shifted to realize what dirty rotten awful stuff he perpetrated, he’ll be old and forgotten and I’ll actually feel sorry for him, as I would any sick old person.

        The Utah kid is unfairly blessed, compared to the literal millions of people whose lives are ruined because they did pretty much nothing wrong. However I’m glad his life wasn’t ruined. Goddamnit, America, there is a way to make fuckups into really useful citizens, if we weren’t so cursed by racism that we love us some torturing people with different melanin tones.

        Of course I meant Nathan Forrest. Just saw “Shock Corridor,” after all.

        • Well yes, but we don’t want to exclude all the fans who anxiously await our comment threads!

          I was thinking of “Tramp the Dirt Down” as I was writing that. Maybe I should spend a couple of evenings writing new Cheney lyrics for that song. I’m sure that Elvis would approve. You get at the big problem. Most likely, Cheney will live into his 90s and never face the condemnation that he has deserved, but which 90 year old Cheney won’t deserve. He deserves to have rotten fruit thrown at him right now — just so he wouldn’t go out in public. It drives me crazy that he’s still allowed on the television as though he is some wise old man. Imagine if Germany had won WWII: Eichmann would have been on television explaining why Australia needed to be invaded because Jews lived there. But the only thing that will dampen my joy when Cheney dies is the same thing that dampened my joy when Thatcher died: that it didn’t happen much, much sooner.

          • Cheney’s an absolute goldang monster — way worse than Bush 2 or Reagan, both of whom were simpletons. Punishment is so tricky to figure. Most nutjobs are products of their circumstances. I’d almost put Paul Bremer in front of Cheney on the Did Total Evil scale, and yet who’s going to bother hating Paul Bremer? Most people have no idea he exists. (Maybe he’s the Eichmann is this example.)

            Everyone out there has excuses for what they do and what they’ve done. Aside from mine, these excuses usually make some sense.

            Sorry for cluttering up the comment threads, but I’m never sorry for mentioning “Tramp The Dirt Down.”

              • I guess there’s little difference between Cheney and Bremer. To me, I’m way more disturbed by those guys or an Eichmann than I am a Bush or Hitler. Politicians who do great evil are in love with symbolic power, something I’ll never understand. Their henchmen actually were in charge of carrying out the evil plans, and I do understand the appeal of arranging how to make stuff work. That’s real power, and I often wish I had it.

                Putting it backwards: my favorite American president is easily FDR, no question, no doubt. (Although LBJ deserves more credit than he gets.) I can’t fathom, however, how the mind of an FDR works, nor would I really want to. We’ve all got ego to spare — that’s more than I could handle.

                I can totally wrap my head around being one of the Brain Trust. Not that I’m anywhere near that bright! But that would be my dream job if I lived ten lifetimes — believing in a goal, and being in charge of how to achieve part of it. I’ve seen enough dumb human behavior to think I know the difference between competence and pure bluster, so I rather fancy I’d be pretty good at running some major policy objective. I’d enjoy it, at least.

                So that’s why these henchmen creep me out so deeply. I’m quite jealous of their positions and appalled what they did with those jobs. I feel I could have, for the grace of whatever gods, easily been just like them. I could never be Hitler or Reagan. I could easily be Eichmann or Bremer/Rumsfeld/Cheney.

                I’m totally on a ramble now, apologies for getting far from the original post. To meander back, Orwell had a great essay about an old woman who shot Mussolini’s corpse as it dangled after his hanging. Who knows what vengeance she thought she was acting out. It was probably entirely justified. And yet completely pointless.

                In my experience, vengeance is garbage. What’s meaningful is making a difference that helps others. Who gives two turds if you win a fight with your employer. If that fight means another employee isn’t treated in the same wrong way, though, that’s something. You can stand back and say you made a difference. But it’s really hard to pull off, and often people who fight those fights are destroyed by the uphill slog.

                We all want to have power, to have an impact on the world around us. To matter. Really silly people and truly immoral people think power is an end in itself. I know a man who works at the nursing home where Thomas Friedman’s mom lived. Friedman would visit often, and that probably made his demented mom very happy. Friedman would also make a point of leaving signed first-edition copies of his books, and it’s a pretty good bet this was utterly unimportant. He could have been reeking of vodka sweat, in hock to bookies, dropping off books while saying he was Stephen King, and the old demented lady would be happy her son was happy and visiting her.

                Rambling again. Who the fuck knows how the minds of human people work. It’s a hot mess.

                • I don’t see Cheney as a henchman. At least in the early day, you will recall, it was Cheney who put together three alternatives and Bush was “the decider.” So Cheney was the real power. I think during the last two years of Bush’s presidency, Bush took control. And as a result, his presidency wasn’t nearly as bad during those years. (There was doubtless also some humility by that time.) But while people like Rumsfeld and Eichmann were henchmen, they weren’t just henchmen; they were also important power players. It was apparently Himmler and not Hitler who came up with the Final Solution after all.

                  Your concern is justified. I feel the same way. I would love to be involved in making the world a better place. But of course Eichmann thought he was making the world a better place. This is one reason why I’ve turned against extreme forms of ideology. One always needs to look at the practical effects of one’s actions. Of course, if you define Jews as vermin (as the Nazis did), it is probably hopeless.

                  But I think it is really healthy to remember that we can be wrong and thus do evil when we think we are doing good. A lack of humility is a big problem. Did you see that Cheney is now talking about how Bush and he kept America safe for 7.5 years. (Note: it’s more like 7.35 years.) Of course, this disregards lots of other things. Shocking though it is to admit, most people do not die as a result of terrorism. Regardless, I have no doubt that Cheney thinks himself the most noble of men. That, or he’s just a psychopath. I give it a 50-50 chance.

  2. Speaking of Reagan, I was at UCLA medical center with my wife who was in line for a kidney transplant. Guess whose name is on the Medical building?
    Yes Ronald Reagan who did his best to destroy higher education in California. Go figure.

    • Norm: Yeah, Reagan used right-wing angst over Berkley protests to further an agenda against what was the the cheapest, best public system of higher education in the country. That he’s memorialized at UCLA is hideous. It’d be like Laos honoring Kissinger by dedicating a minefield of unexploded ordinance in his honor and decorating it with severed limbs.

    • If I had money, I would set up the Ronald Reagan Fund for the Ethical Portrayal of Welfare Recipients. Also perhaps the Ronald Reagan Trust for the Mentally Ill Homeless. There could be a whole bunch of groups dedicated in his name to fixing problems he created or made much worse. But I doubt UCLA see it this way. It was probably done as part of the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project. It’s sickening: idolatry for modern American Christians!

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