When Does Justice Cease to Matter?

By Jay Holmes

This weekend, two seemingly disconnected pieces of news were announced. One informed us that Libya’s former intelligence chief, Abdullah al-Senussi, was arrested Saturday at an airport in Mauritania. The other was that convicted Sobibor Nazi extermination camp guard John Demjanjuk died in prison in Germany. While the two events might seem to have little connection, I think they are both related to a central issue of civilization.

John Demjanjuk – image from jssnews.com

I first heard the name John Demjanjuk in 1985 when Israel sought his extradition as a war criminal. Survivors of the Nazi holocaust had recognized Demjanjuk as Ivan the Terrible, an infamous prison guard who acted with singular cruelty against Jewish prisoners at Sobibor and Treblinka.

My first reaction to the news at the time was astonishment. I wondered just how actively hateful and cruel one had to be to stand out as a villain amongst Nazi concentration camp guards. My second reaction at the time was one of disgust when I heard media pundits debating whether or not it was “worth it at this point” to pursue a WWII war criminal. I wanted to ask the pundits precisely how many days after the murder of an innocent child does the murder become irrelevant? When does the dead child, or in this case the many thousands of victims of Ivan the Terrible’s brutality, cease to matter? What is the shelf life of justice? What is the sell-by date of morality?

In the Demjanjuk case, Israel was able to present enough evidence to gain Demjanjuk’s extradition. He was tried for the brutal murders of prisoners in 1942 and 1943.

Israel found twenty-two surviving witnesses who identified Demjanjuk as a guard who had sadistically and routinely tortured and murdered prisoners, including young children, for his own personal recreation. One of the witnesses was a fellow death camp guard, who in turn came under scrutiny as a possible war criminal after the trial.

Demjanjuk was convicted, and in 1988, he received a death sentence. In most countries, that would be the end of the story save for the line about his death by hanging or stoning, but Demjanjuk wasn’t convicted in “most countries.” He was convicted in Israel—one of those minority nations that has a workable justice system that isn’t directly ruled by hysteria or a drug mafia.

Since he was in Israel, Demjanjuk was entitled to a legitimate system of appeals. Rather than giving in to the rage they must have felt and rubber stamping his case to expedite his execution, the Israeli appeals court granted time for the defense team (paid for by Israeli tax payers) to prepare for each level of appeal.

In 1993, in what struck me as a remarkable case of restraint and adherence to due process, the Israeli Supreme Court overturned Demjanjuk’s conviction for the murders. This was based on the fact that there was some small chance that all twenty-two witnesses might have accidentally confused him with another death camp guard.

At the time, I wondered if any of the SS death camp guards and their Ukrainian volunteers did not deserve execution. I wondered if the small risk of confused identity in this case mattered much.

At the same time, I had to look at the case as proof that, unlike most of the world’s court systems, the Israeli court system had done its absolute best to deliver a just verdict in spite of what must have been the court members’ almost unbearable personal grief.

Although the Israeli Supreme Court’s ruling disappointed me, I felt great admiration for their self-restraint and their ability to put their sworn duty above their deep personal feelings. It was an act of tremendous moral courage. It was an example of precisely the moral courage that the Nazis lacked, and that allowed them to perpetrate such a terrible holocaust against millions of Jews, Slavs, Rom, communists, moral objectors, homosexuals, and Catholics.

So did the Israelis then try and convict him of the war crimes committed by his “alter identity”? No. The courts ruled that for one, his extradition was for the specific charges, and that they would honor the strict conditions of the extradition and release him back to the United States.  And for two, a retrial on lesser charges would, under the circumstances of that particular case, violate the principles of double jeopardy as defined by the Israeli legal system. By then, much of the furor over Ivan the Terrible had died down.

In 1988, the US (another one of those few nations with an imperfect but believable court system) restored Demjanjuk’s citizenship. This was based on the fact that evidence that Demjanjuk was the “other” brutal guard was not shared with his defense team in the original extradition case and subsequent appeals. Because he might have been a different mass murderer instead of the one he was originally accused of being, he got off. But not completely.

In 1999, Demjanjuk faced federal charges that he was a member of the Ukrainian SS auxiliary and that he had served in death camps. (Everyone, including Demjanjuk, agreed that he was a member of that dreadful group.) “Both” Demjanjuks had at least that much in common.

In 2004, after five more years of legal process, Demjanjuk, who admitted being a former member of the Ukrainian SS auxiliary, finally had his citizenship revoked again. For the next five years, Demjanjuk could not be deported because no nation with adequate deportation agreements with the USA would accept him.

In 2008, the German justice ministry decided that they could and should try Demjanjuk for the easily provable charges that he had served in several death camps as a Ukrainian SS volunteer. Demjanjuk and his legal team resisted extradition to Germany. On what grounds, you ask? Why, on the grounds the deporting an elderly man with health problems constituted “torture.” That from the death camp goon.

On May 12, 2011, some minute measure of “justice” was given to the memory of the millions of concentration camp victims when Demjanjuk was convicted of accessory to the murder of 27,000 prisoners. He was sentenced to five years in prison with credit for the two years he had already spent.

On March 17, 2012, John Demjanjuk died in an old age home in Germany.

In their desperate need to be relevant on the world stage, Putin and his boys are claiming they have documents proving that Demjanjuk was not Ivan the Terrible. The documents would, I suppose, show that documents previously released by the USSR were forgeries of older documents covered up by them, and that I should now believe the new documents somehow prove something. It hardly matters. Demjanjuk admitted that he was a member of the Ukrainian auxiliary of the Nazi SS. The only confusion would be whether he was “Murderer A” or “Murderer B.” Neither deserved less than what Demjanjuk went through.

The justice was imperfect and inadequate, but it was never superfluous.

So who is the strange man who was arrested at an airport in Mauritania, and why does he matter? He is Abdullah Senussi, Moammar Qaddafi’s brother-in-law. At various times, he was the head of Qaddafi’s terrorist export business and the head of his internal security forces. Senussi had nothing to do with the Nazi plague, but he had a great deal to due with the plague that was visited upon Libya and upon terrorist victims around the world by Qaddafi.

Many believe, including me, that Abdullah al-Senussi was instrumental in the terror bombing of the La Belle disco in Berlin in 1986, which killed three people and injured 230, as well as the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which resulted in the deaths of another 270. Also, Senussi was convicted in absentia in France in 1999 for the 1989 terror bombing of the French UTA flight 772, which resulted in 171 deaths.

Senussi’s foreign murder record pales in comparison to his energetic campaigns to annihilate Libyans who opposed his brother-in-law. He even once bragged about his masterful handling of the massacre of 1,700 political prisoners at Libya’s Abu Salim prison in 1996.

The precise number of deaths in which Senussi had a hand will never be known. Compared to the Nazis, the Qaddafi gang was small time in the murder arena. The number of deaths that they inflicted will never be known, but if it was your child or your loved one, then that one is hugely significant.

Lots of folks are interested in getting their hands on Abdullah Senussi. So far, France and Libya have requested that he be turned over to them. Scotland is probably working on an extradition request tonight as I write this article. Germany might contemplate it. The USA and the UK have reasons to speak to him, but might not bother getting in the extradition line. If he is brought to trial, we can expect, at best, an inadequate and incomplete justice. But more justice is better than no justice. I’ll take what I can get.

Without waiting for it to happen, I am willing to predict that some “pundits” will proffer the notion that trying Senussi is somehow contrary to the notion of “healing” Libya. Senussi was part of the very disease that made Libya so sick during the reign of Qaddafi and his murderers. Trying Senussi does not block Libya’s so far mostly imaginary progress toward achieving civilization. Undoubtedly, a few will argue that it’s “too late” and that it’s time to “leave the past in the past, etc.” But I would ask of them the same question that I would ask of those who wanted Demjanjuk “left alone.”

When do the deaths of the innocent children cease to matter?


22 comments on “When Does Justice Cease to Matter?

  1. Emma Burcart says:

    Wow, that was an amazing post. I am almost crying in my coffee as I read it. The answer to your question is never. The deaths of innocent children never cease to matter. Thanks for keeping me informed!

  2. Andrew says:

    Interesting. I am as impressed as you are that the Israelis could maintain their commitment to the system they swore to uphold – it would have been much easier to lapse into what amounts to a lynch mob, and it takes a lot of moral fortitude to resist that urge.

    This reminds me of the fairly recent stories in the news where they attributed some more killings to the Green River Killer. As is often the case in those kind of cases, when Ridgway was caught they had the death penalty on the table, but when he offered to reveal the locations of all of the killings he could remember (he was originally charged with 7, but the number bumped up to 41 after his cooperation. Now it’s up to 49. He’s believed to have killed 90+), his sentence was commuted to life without parole.

    There are people who disapprove of that policy, and rather think we should just drag the Ridgways of the world outback and shoot them. But like you said in the article, when does justice cease to matter? The death penalty is a bargaining chip, so that at the very least the families of victims can know what happened to their loved ones and feel like there is at least some amount of justice served. I believe it’s similar with those who perpetrate atrocities like what the concentration camp guard did. It’s also a moral stance, saying that morality is more important than our natural impulse for immediate vengeance.

    Great post! Really made me think :).

    • J Holmes says:

      Hi Andrew. Thank you for your thoughtful response. I had forgotten about the case of the Green River killer. I remember at the time agreeing with the decision to trade his death sentence for the location of all his victims that he could remember.

  3. The Israelis also had a saying about the Holocaust: “Never forgive. Never forget.” Perhaps we should apply that principle to all terrorists everywhere of whatever nature. Murder is a crime. It is the a crime for which there can be no restitution, no “setting things right.” Even the execution of the convicted murderer cannot do that. But it is at least a step.

  4. You deliver again, Holmes.

    I sent my grandson to your site on the Iran crisis for a report due for school. His assignment involved finding relevant current events that the MC in his selected fiction read (a spy thriller) might find interesting.

    I must call him today to see if he (1) followed my advice, and (2) completed his assignment. There is, after all, an entire afternoon left in his week-long spring break.

    • J Holmes says:

      Hi Gloria. Thank you for sending your grandson our way. I hope that we were able to provide him with some useful information. I’m glad that he has a grandma that stays involved with him. That’s the best thing you could give him.

      • Well, his Glowie (moi) got a call four hours after I posted my response. Seems the little charmer did NOT finish his book or his report. I spent my evening having quality time with my grandson surfing the net and suggesting talking points for his paper.

        He’s sixteen. It was spring break. I knew I should have pinned him down to write his paper during the two days he spend with us.

        His dad (my stepson) and I graduated from High School together — him for the first time, me on a blast into the past as his tutor. Wouldn’t trade the time we spent together.

  5. Dave says:

    A very thoughtful post. Thanks for putting things into perspective. It’s hard to reconcile imperfect justice its ideal, but some justice is better than none at all, if for no other reason than to remind the world that someone cares.

  6. J Holmes says:

    “to remind the world that someone cares.” Bingo!

  7. Sometimes the hardest thing to do as a human being is be compassionate to our fellow man. That the Israelis were able to honor their legal system when you know it must’ve been killing them inside, is admirable. The amount of grace they showed is commendable. As for the answer to your question in the title, never.

    I always enjoy your posts. Sometimes I don’t quite understand all the maneuvering and who the people are, but I always learn something.

    • J Holmes says:

      Hi Tameri. I agree with your answer. “Never” If they were born, they were human and mattered. Children can never be “un-mattered” by time or convenience.

      “I don’t quite understand all the maneuvering and who the people are” The fact that I too frequently do probably qualifies me as a mental health patient. I fell like one some days.

  8. EllieAnn says:

    Good, heartfelt post. It reminds me of the movie THE DEBT, which has this same theme. It was one of my favorite movies I saw last year, have you seen it?

  9. J Holmes says:

    Hi Ellie Ann. I have not seen the movie. I will try to watch it. Thank you.

  10. Demjanjuk got away with it. Others did too. Damn. I have often wondered where the ‘death camp guards’ and others involved in the atrocities of the Second World War came from; they were, theoretically, ordinary people. The ‘banality of evil’ is a part of it. What worries me as I look into the human condition is that the potential for losing touch with what actually is good – for succumbing to ‘authoritarian followership’ – seems to exist in every society to some extent. Senussi, to me, is symptomatic of the same aspect of the human condition.

    Is there a way around it? Maybe. I was taught philosophy, post-grad, by Peter Munz – a former Austrian Jew who had come to New Zealand as a small boy when his parents decided to go as far away as they could get – as the persecutions got worse in the late 1930s. Munz went on to study under Karl Popper and subsequently taught at Victoria University, where I was in the early 1980s. The lesson? Reason. We must remember to think; remember to reason and be reasonable – to be tolerant. And above all to be kind.

    It is an indictment on the human condition that significant numbers of ordinary, banal people in Europe forgot that lesson in 1933-45, to the sorrow of the world. What concerns me is that, if we look around today, that same lesson seems to have been forgotten – again.

    Great post – thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Matthew Wright

    • J Holmes says:

      Hi Matthew. Thanks for your visit. Thank you for your thoughtful response.

      The route from barbarity and cruelty to humanity and reason is a long one and we have not completed the journey yet. Long though the trail may be I am able to get out of bed in the morning and face this crazy world because I believe that “we” are making that journey. Not everyone wants to move in that direction but I am a stubborn idealist, albeit an experienced one, and I hold to the hope that collectively we are moving away from ignorance and barbarity.

  11. KM Huber says:

    As the others have said, and some quite eloquently, after discovering your posts, I make sure I don’t miss them. So often, you provide the conscience that seems to escape humanity far too often. Thank you for that. I know we can do better, which is what you show us with your posts. .

    A most grateful reader,


  12. Julie Glover says:

    What an excellent post on these vicious murderers. There is indeed no shelf life for justice. Moreover, it certainly doesn’t appear that these men had substantial regret or threw themselves on the mercy of the court. Like you, I agree that the ends do not justify the means. While it is appealing to stick a guy like this in front of a firing squad with no trial, it speaks volumes about us as just people that we go through a careful process of determining guilt.

    That said, I would have liked to have been there on the day that Demjanjuk met his Maker. I can’t imagine what that man put his victims through. The Holocaust is a constant reminder of the inhumanity people are capable of.

  13. J Holmes says:

    Hi Julie.

    “The Holocaust is a constant reminder of the inhumanity people are capable of.” Yes it is.

  14. […] Holmes is a peerless analyst of world events. Check out: When Does Justice Cease To Matter? […]

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