“The most complete revenge is not to imitate the aggressor.” – Emperor Marcus Aurelius at the peak of the Roman Empire
The long-awaited release of the Senate’s report on the CIA’s use of torture after 9/11 reminded me of a movie that I’ve always considered the best ever made – Judgment at Nuremberg. Producer Stanley Kramer directed a splendid cast, and each performance was a tour de force. The film is about the war crimes trials at the end of World War II that exposed the holocaust, the systematic murder of 12 million people. Using fictional characters, Abby Mann wrote the 1961 Oscar-winning screenplay, from which I will share some excerpts.
Most importantly, Judgment at Nuremberg is a movie that matters. It reminds us of who we are, or, more accurately, who we once were. Spencer Tracy as Judge Haywood said it this way: “A country isn’t a rock….It’s what it stands for. It’s what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult. Before the people of the world, let it be noted that … this is what we stand for: justice, truth, and the value of a single human being.”
After Osama bin Laden’s criminal attacks on the Twin Towers on 9/11, the American people had the support of virtually the entire world. Had we concentrated our retaliation on the invasion of Afghanistan, the overthrow of the Taliban government that provided sanctuary for al Qaida, the rebuilding of that country, and the pursuit of bin Laden, we probably would still have universal respect.
Tragically, the Bush-Cheney regime chose to lead the American people to what Vice President Dick Cheney called “the dark side.” Judge Haywood lamented: “How easily it can happen. There are those in our own country who today speak of the protection of survival. A decision [may] be made in the life of every nation at the very moment when the grasp of its enemy is at its throat that it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy.”
Mad terrorists certainly make the world a dangerous place; but if they cause us to practice what only the “bad guys” do, they will have won. Since 9/11, we have invaded Iraq on evidence based on lies, have wiretapped American citizens without warrants, have suspended habeas corpus allowing us to imprison individuals indefinitely without ever bringing charges against them, have sanctioned torture as we have seen in films of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, been embarrassed by conditions at the Gitmo prison at Guantanamo, set up “dark sites” (secret prisons for torture) in eastern Europe, and practiced “extraordinary rendition” whereby people are arrested or kidnapped and sent to prisons in countries like Egypt that are known for their torture expertise, and used drone attacks to kill selected victims that also murder innocents.
Everything we know about torture tells us that it doesn’t lead to the truth, and the Senate’s report confirms it again. In 1633 when the Catholic Church wanted Galileo to deny that the Earth revolved around the sun, all they had to do was show him the rack and explain how it worked: how it separated the muscles and bones from the body. He relented: the Church was right – the Earth did stand still. Republican senator John McCain was tortured for five years by the North Vietnamese. He has admitted that everyone has his breaking point and that even he eventually told them whatever they wanted to hear.
Maximilian Schell as defense attorney Herr Rolfe – a Best Actor Oscar-winning role – tried to defend his fellow German citizens: “These brutalities were brought about by the few extremists, the criminals. Very few Germans knew what was going on – very few. None of us knew what was happening….”
Burt Lancaster as defendant Judge Ernst Janning confessed his own guilt: “My counsel would have you believe we were not aware of the concentration camps – not aware! Where were we? …Where were we when our neighbors were dragged out in the middle of the night to Dachau (a Nazi concentration camp)? Where were we when every village in Germany has a railroad terminal where cattle cars were filled with children being carried off to their extermination? Where were we when they cried out in the night to us? Were we deaf, dumb, blind? … Maybe we didn’t know the details. But if we didn’t know, it was because we didn’t want to know.”
Janning explained how the unthinkable could happen: “What difference does it make if a few political extremists lose their rights? What difference does it make if a few racial minorities lose their rights? It is only a passing phase. It will be discarded – sooner or later. …The country is in danger. We will march out of the shadows. We will go forward. ‘Forward’ is the great password. And history tells how we succeeded…. And then one day, we looked around and found that we were in even a more terrible danger…. What was going to be a passing phase had become a way of life.”
Judge Haywood reflected on Ernst Janning, a man who had known better but, for love of country, still worked with the Nazis: “If he and all the other defendants had been degraded perverts, if all the other leaders of the 3rd Reich had been sadistic monsters and maniacs, then these events would have no more moral significance than an earthquake or any other natural catastrophe. But this trial has shown that under a national crisis, ordinary – even able and extraordinary men – can delude themselves into the commission of crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination.”
It’s too bad we can’t require everyone in our three federal branches of government to see Judgment at Nuremberg every two to six years. Inexcusably, President Obama and Att. Gen. Eric Holder violated international law (the Convention against Torture ratified by the USA in 1994) by choosing not to prosecute those responsible for authorizing and committing torture during the Bush-Cheney years and, consequently, have not prevented future presidents from repeating the same crimes. At any rate, Mr. Obama has promised that the CIA will not practice torture on his watch and also closed the “dark sites.” The Senate has recently, admirably, published the horrors of our actions in hopes of prohibiting their reoccurrence.
Sadly, we won’t be able to restore our moral authority as long as we continue to operate the prison at Guantanamo and continue the expansion of drone strikes. Both are conspicuous recruiting tools for terrorists who claim that we are an evil empire. We also can’t continue to repudiate the standards we set at Nuremberg and continue to refuse to prosecute those involved in the CIA torture program. We must remember who we were and return there.
By David Offutt
An earlier version of this essay was printed in September 2008 and, as all my others, is available on this blog site. Because of the Senate’s recent report on torture, it seemed a good time to update it and re-submit it.