Interesting story on the wire today about the trial/conviction of John Demjanjuk, a 91 year old, retired American autoworker that was accused of aiding the murder of 20,000+ Jews while working as a guard for the Sobibor death camp in Nazi occupied Poland during World War 2. Apparently, Demjanjuk has been involved in over 30 years of legal proceedings, including being sentenced to death in Israel during the 80’s, only to have that conviction overturned due to possible mistaken identity.
First off, it’s kind of bizarre that this is occurring at all, as World War Two has become one of America’s greatest cultural and historical relics. It’s been preserved and displayed in countless films and books that have frozen 1939-1945 in this timeless, even romanticized history lesson that helps explain a forgotten time period. It feels like a closed book that we’ll open in a similar manner we would one on the medieval period. So to think there are still court cases that deal with this closed period of history strikes me as kind of funny (not in the ha-ha way).
Clearly much evidence was lost over the past sixty years, defendants and witnesses have died off, so it’s hard to build a case with iron clad evidence against Demjanjuk for crimes committed a lifetime ago, especially ones that may have been carried out under duress. As a Jew (even as a non-practicing one), the Holocaust has always been a cloud over even my personal history as it’s something I’ve heard about even as a small child. And while it’s certainly possible that Demjanjuk played a hand in the deaths, I wonder what the point of sentencing an ailing 91 year old man to prison for crimes he committed over half a century ago is (not to mention, there will probably be a yearlong appeals process).
But regardless of this particular case, it is interesting to note that society seems to assume that the only possible true form of punishment is a prison term, and I’m honestly not sure why, as there are multiple ways the system forces accused criminals to “pay for their crimes.” In the unique case of Demjanjuk, there has been a clear life altering thirty years of legal proceedings, which no doubt led to assumed deserved public humiliation/shame, society ostracization, numerous dollars spent for lawyers (etc), and essentially a 30-year major pain in the ass. I’m not quite sure what the benefit of adding jail time to this process would be other than to fulfill a strange understanding that a prison sentence is the ultimate goal when doling out punishment. But why? What is it about locking someone up that gives the public some kind of cathartic benefit? It’s not as if a 91 year old (or any senior citizen) is a real threat to society. Why is the idea of isolating someone from society in a closed, unpleasant area considered the ultimate justice? To this point, what purpose does the continued effort to lock up a 91 year old really have when it seems that most of his adult life has already been under the microscope? Would people really feel better if someone gave him a swift kick to the jewels at this point?
Really, what kind of justice is being served by this? It seems more like a piece of dated political theater, like some true to life modern day play about aging World War 2 war criminals rather than an important stand against crime. Not to mention, a waste of resources.
But I know this is a touchy subject, curious to hear people’s thoughts.