Who will tell me
why I was born,
why this monstrosity
called life.— Anna Swir, from Poetry Reading
One of the unintended consequences of globalization is that no one is a bystander to world events anymore. A. C. Grayling, Master of the New College of the Humanities in London, philosopher, and frequent contributor to The Times, notes that “Saying that there are no bystanders any more means that everyone is involved in everything.” In Grayling’s words, running away from our knowledge of atrocities and terrorism “is a refusal to recognise, think through, and try to deal with the sources of that danger.”
There have been plenty of opportunities to think through the atrocities of the twentieth century, the bloodiest in modern history, and one of them, the Khmer Rouge genocide against the middle class in Cambodia, surfaced this week in a story in the New York Times. A tribunal that is trying leaders of the Khmer Rouge has released one of the defendants, Ieng Thirith, 79, the most powerful woman in that government. Between 1975 and 1979 the Khmer Rouge government murdered 1.7 million people through “execution, torture, forced labor, starvation and disease.” Ms. Thirith, the former minister for social affairs, was charged with crimes against humanity in “planning, direction, coordination and ordering of widespread purges.”
But the tribunal has recommended the immediate release of Thirith because she “lacks capacity to understand proceedings against her or to meaningfully participate in her own defense.” She exhibits symptoms of Alzheimer’s, is disoriented and forgetful, and sometimes talks to herself. Occasionally, she snaps in public and rants at the tribunal, proclaiming her innocence and expressing shock that she, the scion of a respectable family, should be hauled up on such outrageous charges as murder and genocide. Apparently, her powers of reasoning allow her to place the blame for murder on her compatriots, while she was only responsible for bureaucratic paper-shuffling.
Her fellow defendants are, like herself, old people now, but once they were young revolutionaries who joined Pol Pot in turning Cambodia into the killing fields. Pot Pot died in 1998 without coming to trial. Should the international community forgive these people because it was a long time ago and the defendants are weak, powerless people with one foot in the grave?
It is a mark of moral courage that courts such as the International Criminal Court even exist. The United States is one of three countries worldwide that unsigned itself from the Court during the Bush era, will not participate in any proceedings, and will not allow its citizens to be brought up on charges. No doubt there are varied and complex reasons for this, but it smells bad.
Since we are all participants and no longer bystanders, the action of the U.N. court in Cambodia raises all sorts of ethical questions. A humane society holds that no matter the culpability of a defendant, that person cannot be tried if he or she cannot understand the charges through mental incompetence. The presumption is that only the sane can be tried because only the sane are responsible for their crimes and for the acknowledgement of them. The banality of evil in people (the phrase is Hannah Arendt’s) means that a person can sign the death warrants of millions and go home to a loving family, a cosy dinner, and a satisfying sleep for a job well done. Thus, Ieng Thirith, no doubt as sane as any government official can be, could participate in genocide but cannot be held accountable for it years later because she has the mental and moral capacity of a squirrel.
Many of the 20th-century’s war criminals have been indicted while in their golden years but die before a verdict can be reached. Slobodan Milosevic and Augusto Pinochet come to mind, while the early phase of Mubarak’s trial in Egypt was conducted while he was in a hospital bed. No doubt Syria’s Assad, should he ever come to trial for crimes against humanity, will suffer a heart attack. I’m sure it’s all very stressful. On the other hand, rough justice of a sort caught up with Saddam, and Gaddafi, already indicted for war crimes before he met his ignoble end in the midst of an angry mob, might have also stood trial.
Is it the sheer magnitude of their crimes, that sometimes beggar description, which fill us with revulsion? Is that why they should be brought to justice? What do we gain by sentencing a 70-year old to 134 years in prison? Even if they are executed that doesn’t serve as a deterrent to up and coming young dictators; each one seems to believe that he plays out his drama on a stage sequestered from the world. Can we make up for the loss of thousands of lives, sometimes millions, of victims who will never live out their potential? Can one death redress the hurt of so many of the victims families?
We know it can’t. But we’re also not willing to let these crimes pass by. Why do we pursue the perpetrators, spending years and sometimes millions of dollars tracking them down, producing witnesses, compiling evidence, and presenting the facts?
Perhaps it is for two reasons: to honor the memory of those who were humiliated, displaced, tortured and executed, and to remember what it means to be human. Vengeance is God’s but honor remains to us, the living. We must carry on from day to day, fighting the impulse to strike back in like manner, and instead, through a scrupulously fair legal process, show that the poison of evil that pervades the human psyche does not define the human spirit.