This past Monday, 89-year old John Demjanjuk began a trial in Munich on the accusation that he helped force 27,900 Jews to death during the Holocaust. This is his second trial as an accused Nazi. The first, in 1988, in which he was convicted and sentenced to death, was overturned by the Israeli Supreme Court in 1993 after concluding it was a case of mistaken identity. This case arrives at the end of a long, global manhunt, spanning over 70 years, of finding those guilty of terrible Nazi war crimes and holding them to account.
The problem is, this seemingly justifiable and avenging act is sending us the wrong message about justice.
We're taught at an early age that vengeance is the wrong kind of justice. While an effective way to keep playground brawls at a minimum, this phrase doesn't capture just how wrong it is. At the heart of vengeance is something much more repulsive—a blind, emotional, selfish motivation that has utter disrespect not only for themselves as the victim, but for society around them.
Here in London, I work with a Member of Parliament (MP) who serves a constituency with a myriad of social problems, such as high teenage pregnancy, broken families, and everything else in between. I visited the constituency recently and heard from a mother a shocking story. For as long as she could remember there was a young boy who walked by her house, who looked “sullen and dangerous”. She learned that he was from a broken family right across the street that didn't care for him “in the slightest”. Ten years went by, and one day her neighbor's 15-year old son was murdered in his own home—by this same sullen and dangerous boy.
Like John Demjanjuk, the boy will receive scathing media coverage and negative public response decrying him as a monster to society—all before he is convicted, of course—and then sent to prison. The state's job is then done; they've done all they can in their effort to bring boys like him to justice and avenge the life of the innocent victim. These two cases relate because both approaches society takes to resolve their crimes does not take into account the larger picture. When we talk about the Holocaust, why don't we talk about the British, French, and even American governments, who not only knew about concentration camps and Hitler's “Final Solution” plans, but in some cases praised him for it? When we talk about the boy murderer, why are we ignoring the fact his parents didn't raise him properly, or that the UK government spends more money on prosecuting and imprisoning than education or social support?
People may say “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”. Little do they know just how blind it makes us to the disrespect and injustice that this mentality fosters. It is beyond disrespectful, to the victims of any serious crime, to treat the wrongdoers with an approach that does nothing to prevent that situation from happening again—to you, me, or anyone else. Vengeance is a reaction to an individual, not a prevention for the future. To take revenge, then, is despicably selfish, considering the mentality doesn't care if it happens again somewhere else—as long as “they get what they deserve”.
In contrast, proactive justice makes more sense in preventing injustice. In Germany, it is mandatory for all students to visit the concentration camps and learn of their grandparents' mistakes (I visited recently, and fell in awe of just how aware Germans were to their history). In my MP's constituency, schools and social centers are implementing what they label as Early Intervention measures, which targets children 0-6 in the effort to provide them the support and stability needed to prevent them from falling into a socially instable situation. Seventy years after the Holocaust, Germany is internationally renowned for tolerance and openness to immigrants and diversity; barely a decade after my MP's Early Intervention programs have started, crime is on the decline and education on the rise.
In Germany, Britain, and at LMU, it's up to us—society—to redefine what justice is. If that seems like too big a task, yes it is: because it's how we interpret cases like John Demjanjuk and the boy from Britain that determines how our society sees justice. The more we react selfishly, the more vengeful and blind we will be, and injustice will go about business as usual. The more we take steps to stop injustice where it begins, the more effective we will be in keeping society safe—because, with both our eyes intact, we can see just how connected and interdependent we all are.