Americans are in the midst of a crucial and emotional debate over the use of torture by the Bush Administration in wake of 9/11. Waterboarding, Guantanamo, the definition of torture; its effectiveness in extracting accurate information from suspects; who's culpable, legally and morally -- and what if anything, will the Obama Administration and/or Congress do about allegations of past torture. Lost in the din of the (mostly) Beltway controversy is the attempt by a resident of Cleveland, Ohio to invoke claims of 'torture' to block his deportation (or "removal" as his lawyers call it) to Germany.
John Demjanjuk, now, 89, asserts that because of his age, flying him from America to Germany, where he "might" be arrested, confined, and put on trial, would subject him to conditions constituting "torture" under the Convention Against Torture! Indeed, a family-supplied bedside video shows the elderly man moaning in pain and when Federal Agents recently came to transport him to the airport, he looked more dead than alive. Mr. Demjanjuk and his supporters would have the 6th Circuit Appeals Panel focus on these heart-wrenching images, not the new surveillance footage showing him able to walk to and from a car unaided and carrying on extended, coherent conversations. ( The Wiesenthal Center is releasing new footage of Mr. Demjanjuk--view and decide if he's ready to get on a plane.)
A Munich court has issued an arrest warrant for this man, who stands accused of aiding and abetting the murder of at least 29,000 Jewish civilians at the Sobibor Death Camp in Nazi- occupied Poland during World War II. Approximately 250,000 Jews from throughout Nazi-occupied Europe were killed there. Are we sure Demjanjuk was at Sobibor? Well, 11 years after exercising all of the legal rights, the chief judge of the Federal District Court in Cleveland found that the US Department of Justice proved that Demjanjuk "contributed to the process by which thousands of Jews were murdered by asphyxiation with carbon monoxide" in the gas chambers at Sobibor. And while the Israeli Supreme Court ordered his release when doubt was raise whether he was Treblinka's "Ivan The Terrible", there has never been any doubt this man abetted genocide at Sobibor. Prosecutors have presented captured SS documents found in archives in 4 different countries, including Germany. That paper trail was confirmed by the postwar testimony of another Ukrainian guard who served with him at both Sobibor and later Flossenbuerg. In the US proceedings, the Department of Justice's Office of Special Investigation on Nazi War Crimes(OSI) proved everything under a standard of proof that, according to the US Supreme Court, is "substantially identical" to the "beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard" that applies in criminal cases.
This attempt by a former guard at a death camp to cast himself as the victim is, in the words of OSI Director Eli Rosenbaum, nothing less than a grotesque debasement of the word "torture," a characterization that makes a mockery of the terrible suffering inflicted on genuine victims of torture at places like the Sobibor extermination center. Ironically, Petitioner's argument is advanced by one who has been confirmed by U.S. to have contributed to the mass-asphyxiation of thousands of civilians at a human extermination center on behalf of a regime responsible for some of the largest-scale tortures and murders in history.
But why bother looking back to the distant past in 2009? After all, our 21st century is struggling with its own crises. Here's the answer Simon Wiesenthal, the Holocaust survivor and "Nazi hunter" always gave to this challenge: "For me it has never been about vengeance, but justice,' he would declare. "Every trial of an accused Nazi is an inoculation against hate and a warning to tomorrow's (mass) murderers that they too will be held accountable for their crimes." Postwar Europe has never been in more need of effective inoculations against hatred as it does today in these uncertain economic times.
John Demjanjuk will be treated fairly in democratic Germany and will stand trial as long as he is mentally and physically capable of doing so. His trial, should it actually take place will likely be the last to take place on German soil. Such a trial will expose millions of younger Germans, including young Muslims to the realities and extent of the Nazi barbarities. Events in our time prove that Mr. Wiesenthal was right all along about the need for such trials. "We need such trials, not only to bring justice for the victims, " he insisted, "but for convicted criminals to bear witness to the Truth." In an era where the president of a country can use the podium of the United Nations to deny the Shoah and still be treated like a rock star, Germany's bearing witness to truth and justice will serve not only its obligation to the past but help secure humankind's tenuous hold on universal values of decency.