Quote Of The Day

“Nuremberg, lest we forget, was a military tribunal with civilian lawyers and it offered far fewer protections to the Nazis in the dock than the military commissions at Guantánamo will give to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and his co-defendants in the 9/11 attacks. Military justice worked then and it can work again today.” —WILLIAM SHAWCROSS, son of the chief British prosecutor of the Nuremberg trials on military tribunals writing in the New York Times

38 Responses to “Quote Of The Day”


  • Did justice work then? Here are some poignant comments about Nuremberg from Chomsky:

    “This most elementary of moral truisms is sometimes upheld at least in words. One example, of critical importance today, is the Nuremberg Tribunal. In sentencing Nazi war criminals to death, Justice Robert Jackson, Chief of Counsel for the United States, spoke eloquently, and memorably, on the principle of universality. “If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes,” he said, “they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us….We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well.”

    That is a clear and honorable statement of the principle of universality. But the judgment at Nuremberg itself crucially violated this principle. The Tribunal had to define “war crime” and “crimes against humanity.” It crafted these definition very carefully so that crimes are criminal only if they were not committed by the allies. Urban bombing of civilian concentrations was excluded, because the allies carried it out more barbarically than the Nazis. And Nazi war criminals, like Admiral Doenitz, were able to plead successfully that their British and US counterparts had carried out the same practices. The reasoning was outlined by Telford Taylor, a distinguished international lawyer who was Jackson’s Chief Counsel for War Crimes. He explained that “to punish the foe–especially the vanquished foe–for conduct in which the enforcing nation has engaged, would be so grossly inequitable as to discredit the laws themselves.” That is correct, but the operative definition of “crime” also discredits the laws themselves. Subsequent Tribunals are discredited by the same moral flaw, but the self-exemption of the powerful from international law and elementary moral principle goes far beyond this illustration, and reaches to just about every aspect of the two phases of the War on Terror.”

  • I’m curious Jon, do you disagree with the Nuremberg trials premise that the Nazi’s actions were morally very different than those of the Allies? In other words, were creating and performing concentration camps meant for the sole purpose of executing innocent civilians simply based on their race, vastly different morally, than anything the allies did during WWII?

    If so, than all Chomsky is saying (unintentionally, of course) is that it might be hard to put that into words. Fine. That may be so (just as its hard, for example, to define human value itself, philosophically – but we all know its true). But that just points to a limitation in philosophy and arguing…nothing more. It reduces Chomsky’s quote from enlightening to near meaningless.

    If not, then I dont know what moral universe you live in. Certainly not ours.

  • Do you really think it’s ethical to contrive definitions of crimes that exclude the victors and only punish the vanquished? My moral universe involves the principle of universality.

    In my world there were Nazi crimes that were not committed by the Allies for which they should be punished. But there were also Allied crimes that were not committed by the Nazis for which Allies should have been punished. The crimes were different of course. So what? Rape is different from murder, which is different from theft. They are all crimes.

    What we get with military tribunals it seems to me is foregone conclusions. We want General Yamashita executed because he’s a member of the vanquished. We’re going to accuse him of crimes committed by people technically under his command, but whom were out of contact with him and he couldn’t stop them. We tortured KSM to get him to say what he wants and now we want to execute him for it. These are things you can accomplish with military tribunals. What’s the point? Do you really want the show trials, like John Yoo? I say be truthful. Dissolve the illusions. Have Obama put a bullet in the head of anybody that he wants to. That’s what you’re really advocating.

  • I agree with the principle of universality – my point even assumes that.

    What the Nazi’s did is on such a morally different scale than anything the Allies or even other Axis powers did, that it shocks me that Chomsky has a hard time understanding that. The Nazi’s cannot be justified on “in an effort to win the war” grounds, like the Allies can.

    Did the Allies and Axis powers do stuff that is also morally reprehensible? Sure. But atleast that can be justified on war grounds. War is ugly. And in a “total war”, casualties will occur and sometimes kill far more casualties than desired. But the objective was always to win the war. To reduce power for the other side. To get them to capitulate.

    The Nazi’s on the other hand, just did the concentration camps and killings out of pure evil. In fact, they probably wanted the war to go on longer, so they could kill even more innocent Jews. It’s so morally different that even the mild equivocating that Chomsky does is shocking and reprehensible.

  • Why do you say Chomsky has a hard time distinguishing Nazi crimes from others?

  • Correct me if I am wrong, but the gist of the quote above seems to imply that Chomsky is saying that the Allies are somehow morally equivalent to the Axis powers, with Nazi Germany in particular, and had to go out of their way to condemn the Nazi’s while not condemning the allies. No?

    My point is that if you just focus on the concentration camps and human rights atrocities, it should be easy and common sense to distinguish the two. No need to “go out of their way to condemn the Nazi’s while not condemning the allies”, and if they did go out of their way, its a weakness in language, not a weakness in actual moral depravity difference.

  • Not to interrupt this discussion of the Nuremberg trials…

    But, quite simply, even if it is true that the Nuremberg trials prove that military justice can be administered fairly, it doesn’t mean we should simply then decide to try everyone in a military trial.

    One hopes and assumes that both military trials and civilian trials are just courts for their particular purpose. But the decision about which type of trial to employ doesn’t hinge on whether the court is fair or not, rather it hinges on the situation and status of the individuals in the case.

    And it’s pretty obvious to me that many of those who will be brought to trial in these military courts are being tried in the wrong venue, and therefore, under the wrong set of rules.

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