On 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.