In the movie Judgment at Nuremberg, a Nazi judge has to answer for sacrificing an innocent man to appease the bloodlust of an angry crowd, swearing he had no idea how it would lead to the Holocaust. America must make a similar decision on whether to send a liberal Muslim cleric to his death abroad to appease an authoritarian “ally” in the war against ISIS. Will our policymakers get it right, or will we bow to realpolitik, sacrificing our soul for political power?
At the conclusion of that classic film, Nazi Judge Ernst Janning begs to meet with the head of the Nuremberg Tribunal, Judge Dan Haywood of America. Janning seems like a good guy with good intentions. He admits that he sentenced a Jewish man, Feldenstein, to death, but that was because there was fear and anger. He hoped it would end with the innocent man’s death.
“Judge Haywood...the reason I asked you to come,” Janning begs in a quivering voice, “those people, those millions of people...I never knew it would come to that. You must believe it, you must believe it.” Haywood sternly rebukes him. “Herr Janning, it came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.”
Of course, we believe that we’ve learned our lesson since World War II. We would never allow that to ever happen again, right? Yet we know that history can repeat itself, often because of human nature, and the desire for expediency over ethics.
Moments after the Turkish military coup failed, “ceremonial” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered tens of thousands of judges, police officers, professors, journalists, administrators, to be fired and arrested many. He demanded the United States extradite aged Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen to Turkey to stand trial, alleging that the longtime resident in America led the coup.
So far, there has not been a shred of untainted evidence that Gulen, who has a historically frosty relationship with the secular Turkish military, could order them around from his remote Pennsylvania home.
Of course, that could change, as Amnesty International has reported on the widespread torture, rape and abuse of detainees from the coup plot. The chances that some people will say what Erdogan wants them to say are similar to the ability one has to be held under water, or endure unspeakable pain.
Even those in America, who support having closer ties with Erdogan, recognize that the chances of an impartial judiciary giving Gulen a fair trial are nearly impossible. According to former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey James Jeffrey,
“The challenge that Washington faces in Gulen’s case is that Turkish authorities have been playing fast and loose with the authority of their court system, undermining the legitimacy of extradition requests. And even if the request is legitimate on paper, U.S. courts and administration officials will have to weigh whether Gulen would truly receive a free trial if he is sent to Turkey. From a policy perspective, the administration would likely be better off swallowing its concerns, sending this case to the courts, and letting the judicial system reach a decision. In this delicate phase of relations with such an important ally, realpolitik must guide the handling of such matters.”Wow...realpolitik will take precedence. It’s okay to send Gulen to his death. What do we care about the execution of a Muslim cleric who paid for full-page ads in the New York Times to condemn 9/11 attacks, the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and ISIS, forged ties between Jews, Christians and Muslims, who came to America because of our freedoms, and will honor our request, putting his fate in God’s hands, and our own. And why do we care that he goes to his death at the hands of a man who had good things to say about Hitler’s system of government.
If Judge Janning got a second chance, knowing how the Holocaust turn out, do you think he would have ordered Feldenstein’s execution? America’s leaders are, amazingly enough, in a similar dilemma. Knowing where we stand in history, and the realpolitik concerns that told us to look the other way on Nazi war crimes in order to stand up to the Communists, how will we choose? And if you want a voice, it’s time to let those leaders know where you stand.
*Professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga.
Published on The Huffington Post, 26 August 2016, Friday