Barack Obama now has cited the Nuremberg trials after the Second World War as a model of the way Osama bin Laden should be tried in the (unlikely) event he’s ever taken alive. He recommends Nuremberg as an example to follow because, he says, those trials embodied universal legal principles.
The Nuremberg trials a model of international law? Those stone-faced judges in Red Army uniforms peering down from the bench at Nuremberg, shoulder boards in place and guilty verdicts at the ready, must have been there as representatives of Comrade Stalin’s well-known devotion to universally accepted legal principles.
This is not to say that the judges at Nuremberg couldn’t demonstrate exquisite tact. For example, not a one noted the Soviets’ responsibility for the Katyn Massacre, a war crime none dared accuse them of at the time.
In 1946, the Soviets were still Our Fighting Russian Allies. And so the mass execution of the Polish army’s officer corps in the Katyn forest was pinned on the Nazis, who were conveniently at hand. What would one more war crime matter in a record already so monstrous?
Nor did any of the judges at Nuremberg make much of the infamous Nazi-Soviet Pact that precipitated the whole, bloody cataclysm that was the Second World War. That alliance between fellow dictators was simply tossed down the memory hole. It became a non-event.
At Nuremberg, the Soviet Union was invited to sit in judgment of its old partner in aggression — on a charge of waging aggressive war. To wit, the war of aggression that the Soviet Union joined with Nazi Germany to ignite in September of 1939. Barack Obama would have been on sounder ground if he had cited the proceedings at Nuremberg not as an example of justice but irony.
You have to wonder if anybody remembers any history any more. Barack Obama doesn’t seem to. The unthinking simply assume, as Sen. Obama does, that Nuremberg was some kind of model of justice. Hey, the Nazi leaders were hanged, weren’t they?
In the long tradition of politicized law, Nuremberg was as clear an example of victor’s justice as any other show trial. Sen. Obama, however, seems to think it a dandy precedent. Mainly because of its propaganda value: He argues that a Nuremberg-style trial of Osama bin Laden would demonstrate the evil nature of our enemy to the whole world. The proceedings at Nuremberg did indeed preserve the outward forms of justice — while sacrificing its essence. The universal principle that Nuremberg represented was propaganda.
It would take someone who cared more about principle than popularity to point out that, whatever Nuremberg was, it wasn’t an exercise in ideal justice. Someone like the late Robert A. Taft, who had a way of offending popular opinion for no better reason than adherence to principle.
In 1946, as he prepared to run for president yet again, Sen. Taft was invited to give a talk at little Kenyon College in Ohio. He used the occasion to say the obvious — that the court assembled at Nuremberg was anything but an exercise in universally accepted principles of law. “The trial of the vanquished by the victors,” he warned, “cannot be impartial no matter how it is hedged about with the forms of justice.”
Robert A. Taft was promptly rewarded for his honesty by being branded a Nazi sympathizer by his critics — on both sides of the aisle. Yet his warning against staging a trial to make a political point still holds. Or it would if anyone remembered it.
Instead, Nuremberg is now cited as an example to emulate by a presidential candidate who, whatever his faults, has demonstrated an almost unfailing ability to please the crowd.
It may be justified to take vengeance for the unspeakable wrongs inflicted on the world’s innocents, but to do so under color of law isn’t.
Given my druthers, I’d rather see Osama bin Laden hanged from a sour apple tree than have him languish indefinitely, like his confederates at Guantanamo, under the aegis of the Supreme Court of the United States. Not that his summary execution should be confused with enlightened jurisprudence. Like any act of vengeance, it would be the rawest form of justice, but at least it wouldn’t be the exercise in hypocrisy that Nuremberg was.
However much various defendants at Nuremberg richly deserved hanging, or maybe drawing and quartering, to cite those trials as the embodiment of universal legal principles is … well, ahistorical. We all know Sen. Obama is a young man, but there are times when he sounds as if he’d been born yesterday.
At his best, which is when he is speaking, Barack Obama is an impressive figure. This isn’t some John Kerry or Hillary Clinton going down a list of talking points hoping that one will strike a chord. Sen. Obama usually responds directly to the question he’s asked rather than riding off in all directions. He pays his interlocutor the courtesy of careful attention and a respectful answer. In that regard, he reminds one of Bill Clinton when that former president still had his touch, and could establish a personal bond with a questioner.
But once Barack Obama is no longer trading in some staple of his party’s appeal — identity politics, say, or class warfare — and starts messing with history, he demonstrates only the most tenuous hold on his subject. And he winds up, again like Bill Clinton, sounding profoundly superficial.