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When We Call Genocidaires “Monsters”

black and white photograph of human skulls stacked on top of one another

Netflix’s The Devil Next Door, a docuseries about an elderly man in Ohio accused of being Nazi death camp guard, received critical acclaim. While the topic may be interesting, the title is noteworthy. It is not uncommon for different media to refer to genocidaires (a term usually used to describe perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide) as monsters or devils. Books, such as “Hitler’s Monsters” and “The Devil Came on Horseback” (about the genocide in Darfur), tabloid journalism, and periodicals utilize similar language.

Such language seems innocuous, even appropriate given the gravity of the perpetrators’ sin. After all, it would appear only monsters and devils would be capable of committing such a monstrous and hellish crime. Amidst the complexity of studying genocide, the one incontrovertible assertion is that genocidaires are indeed monsters and devils. Or is it?

Despite the labels’ ubiquity in popular culture and common parlance, there are a few reasons to believe that society should refrain from using such characterizations. Aside from the risk of dabbling in the same dehumanizing language used by the genocidaires themselves, such characterizations obscure one’s ability to understand how genocides unfold and serve to perpetuate a mythology of evil. Referring the agents as something other than human also removes their culpability, distancing human society from the inhuman perpetrators.

It is a weak and potentially regressive starting point for analyzing the causes of genocide. Are the genocidaires born monsters? Or do they become monsters? How can we spot the monsters before they commit genocide? How do we stop them? How do we hold them accountable to human standards of justice and morality?

Perhaps the greatest obfuscation of these labels is that it makes the crime of crimes appear extremely unlikely, requiring the intervention of the Devil incarnate into Earth’s affairs. But in fact, it requires the participation of everyday human beings to plan and carry out a policy of genocide. They are civilians. They are neighbors. They are friends. They are relatives. While the act itself is the embodiment of horror, its organization and execution is disturbingly unexceptional.

The origin of this notion that only a supernatural, inhuman force of villainy could cause such heinous acts may be found in the horror stories of centuries past. John Douglas, a former FBI agent who spent his career studying the psychology of serial killers, claims novelists and storytellers created fictitious monsters to explain seemingly inexplicable murders and massacres. But we have the tools now to better explain past heinous acts in the pursuit of preventing future ones from occurring.

In their book, Architects of Annihilation: Auschwitz and the Logic of Destruction, Goetz Aly and Susanne Heim examine the role of German scientists and scholars in the Holocaust. These intellectuals posited deportation, ghettoization, displacement, sterilization, and mass murder as a solution to German’s population “problem”. As Goetz and Heim conclude, “To a very large extent the policy of annihilation was the product of a rational argument taken to a mercilessly logical conclusion.”

The two writers make another noteworthy observation: These intellectuals, who served as advisers to the civilian administrations and the SS, “did not match the stereotype of the zealous, narrow-minded Nazi ideologue, and who argued their case objectively and dispassionately.” In other words, they saw their advocacy for genocide as merely fulfilling their professional duty to advise the government, even though their scientific recommendations were glaringly absent of any consideration of the value of human life.

Rationalist accounts of genocide, such as Architects of Annihilation, focus on genocidal planning and cost-benefit analysis. Analyzing genocide as the logical end of a rational argument demystifies the crime and demonstrates that genocide is not a far-fetched phenomenon conjured by evil but rather policy option, requiring the participation of seemingly ordinary individuals to organize and execute. While rationalist accounts explain the logic of genocide, they fail to account for the ideological, racist, and irrational forces that seek to justify genocidal policy.

Structuralist accounts, on the other hand, seek to understand the macro-level features of society that permitted the genocide to occur. Ian Kershaw writes that a structuralist explanation of the Holocaust focuses the “ad-hoc responses of a splintered and disorderly government” which “produced an inevitable spiral of radicalization.” Zygmunt Berman made the highly influential assertion that modernity was a necessary condition for the Jews to be annihilated in systematic fashion. While this approach does not blame existing bureaucratic or larger societal forces for genocide, it does acknowledge the role these institutions and systems played in facilitating these acts and how their power was harnessed. Other accounts focus on the intent of the genocidaires, the purported causal linkage of colonialism and war, or the role of inflamed ethnic or cultural animosities.

But notice, among the variety of serious explanatory tools, none seek to ascribe a monstrous or satanic nature to the human perpetrators, partly because it fails to explain why or how genocide occurs. Of course, labeling genocidaires as “monsters” and “devils” does not prevent one from understanding the crime, but the labeling is conceptually inconsistent with any accurate explanation and also unintentionally denies the perpetrators’ human moral responsibility. It discounts the very real possibility of this very human phenomenon.

As Hanna Arendt noted, this evil is banal. The devil next door is no devil at all. He is a human. And that might be even more frightening than the monsters our horror novels depict.

Judd v Weinstein: Reexamining Ex Post Facto

Photograph of a gavel next to two large books

In the United States hundreds of new laws come into effect every year at both the state and federal level. Some of these laws criminalize actions that were once legal, while others simply serve to reform the existing judicial system. The concept of retroactive punishment has been a concept debated in the philosophy of law since the beginning of time. At the heart of this debate lies the relationship between the law and morality as well as the purpose of the law itself. One recent example which demonstrates the tension between the law and morality is Ashley Judd’s lawsuit against Harvey Weinstein. In the case, Judd cites a law which prohibits sexual harassment of the nature which Judd is alleging. However, Judge Philip S. Gutierrez dismissed this charge because, at the time of the alleged harassment, late 1996 to early 1997, the law cited did not extend to producers such as Weinstein. While Judd is still able to pursue a defamation charge against Weinstein, the dismissal of the harassment allegations seems troubling, especially considering Weinstein’s current legal standing with sexual harassment and assault. Was it wrong for Gutierrez to dismiss the charges? Should a person be punished for an act that was not illegal at the time that it was committed? And is the purpose of the law inherently tied to morality?

The allegations against Weinstein that began in 2017 not only ushered in the #MeToo movement, but also posed questions about the ties between the law and morality. In one specific case, Ashley Judd vs Harvey Weinstein, Weinstein’s actions toward Judd, which include harassment of a sexual nature while he was in a position of power over Judd, were found to be legal for Weinstein at the time that he committed them. Despite the fact that Weinstein’s actions would be illegal today, a judge found that he could not be charged with these allegations in the present. The inapplicability of retroactive laws, otherwise known as ex post facto, is an important concept in the philosophy of law. An ex post facto law is defined as “a criminal statute that punishes actions retroactively, thereby criminalizing conduct that was legal when originally performed.” Currently, there are two statutes in the United States Constitution that prohibit ex post facto laws, Art 1, § 9 and Art. 1 § 10

The prohibition of ex post facto laws is not unique to the U.S. with many countries observing the unjust nature of such laws. In fact, the illegitimacy of ex post facto shares widespread support in part due to its prevalence in U.S. courts since the 18th century. U.S. Supreme case Calder v. Bull (1798) established the fundamental aspects of ex post facto laws including laws that “create or aggravate the crime or increase the punishment or change the rules of evidence for the purpose of conviction.

A more recent Supreme Court decision which is often cited is that of Beazell v Ohio (1925). In this case, the majority held that “any statute which punishes as a crime an act previously committed, which was innocent when done, which makes more burdensome the punishment for a crime, after its commission, or which deprives one charged with crime of any defense available according to law at the time when the act was committed, is prohibited as ex post facto.” Ex post facto is not only considered essential to the integrity of the judicial system but can also be argued for on the basis of morality.

While one might admit that Weinstein’s actions were morally wrong, one could ultimately hold that it is unjust to punish him for an act he committed that was (unfortunately) legal at the time. Punishing him might set a bad precedent that would essentially undermine the value that laws hold. Why even pass new laws making sexual harassment illegal if one can be punished without the laws taking effect? On the other hand, proponents of punishing Weinstein would argue that what makes Weinstein deserving of punishment in this case is the abhorrent and immoral nature of his actions. If the purpose of law is to either punish those who deserve to be punished or contribute to the welfare of society, then Weinstein could be justifiably be punished either way. But can we truly pick and choose which actions justify ex post facto and which do not? If I were to buy cigarettes today and it becomes illegal to purchase cigarettes in 2 weeks, should I be punished for the time I bought cigarettes? What if I were to prank-call my neighbor? Or drive the speed limit in the fast lane? Though these scenarios are small, they all demonstrate that it seems silly and unreasonable to apply ex post facto punishments in every situation, but it also becomes hard to draw the line in which cases are appropriate. The judge’s logic in this case as well as the general attitude that law and morality should stay separate is relatively popular within legal positivism.

On the other hand, some proponents of natural law might argue that retroactive laws can and should indeed be enforced. This is because the justification for punishment stems not only from the breaking of a man-made law, but also a moral law. Though an act might not have been illegal within code, it is still against the fundamental moral laws reinforced by a higher power. Debates about ex post facto laws were especially prevalent during the international Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals. The state of international law during the Nazi era did not indicate an illegality of some of the most morally repugnant actions of Nazis at the time, including the Holocaust. Regardless of this fact, many in the international political and judicial community felt that officials in the Nazi regime should be punished for their crimes against humanity. However, not everyone agreed, including Jewish legal scholars, such as United States federal judge Charles Wyzanski Jr., who stressed the violation of the ex post facto principle in several cases during the Nuremberg trials. But perhaps, to many people, the decision to punish Nazis for every morally reprehensible act they committed is necessary and just regardless of the circumstances. If the purpose of law is to punish, prevent future crime, or both, it seems that there are many instances, Weinstein’s included, that could morally merit the application of ex post facto punishment.

Though Judd will not be able to pursue sexual harassment charges against Weinstein, many others are successfully pursuing their cases of sexual assault against Weinstein at a trial in New York in 2019. While many would argue that Weinstein’s harassment of Judd should have been illegal in the first place, it is also possible to recognize the importance of upholding the integrity of the law and the ex post facto principle. As we continue to modify and enhance laws against sexual harassment, one can hope that cases such as Judd’s find proper legal and moral justice in the future.

Please Don’t Punch the Nazis

Neo-Nazis at the Charlottesville rally

I’m not sure what to call the August 11 fascist cosplay in Charlotte VA. Ridicule and mockery seem out of place when discussing an event where organizers called for, and followed through with, the execution of other human beings. Whatever that display of vileness is called, the leaders are afraid to show their faces in public.  Richard Spencer, the punched-face of Neo-Nazism is reportedly afraid to leave his home for fear of, well, being punched. He whinges, “I have never felt like the government or police were against me. There has never been a situation in my life when I’ve felt this way.” He has not found common ground with Black Lives Matter, The Anti-Defamation League or any other group he wants to eradicate from the earth.  He feels oppressed because the police are not sufficiently protecting and assisting his efforts to foment genocide.

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When Oppressors Repent, Who Deserves Forgiveness?

Just before Christmas, prisoners serving long terms for human rights abuses during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile received a mass and asked for forgiveness from the families of their victims. Some families of the victims protested the mass, and many human rights advocates dismissed these moves by the prisoners as empty, and not genuine steps towards earning forgiveness.

Forgiveness is often seen as a virtue, a good-making feature of a life well lived. To forgive is to let go of the blame we feel towards those who wrong us. Letting go of negative feelings can seem like an obvious good, a move towards a more positive way of living. When we hurt each other and let one another down, we make amends, apologize, and aim to get past states of blame and hurt. When someone who harms us apologizes, forgiving them is how the relationship can move forward.

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