The Background on Collective Guilt
Back around 1958, when I was a college student at Virginia Tech, I found myself in the dorm room of an immigrant from The Netherlands, and the conversation eventually came around to the topic of World War II. The fellow declared that if he could push a button to kill all the Germans on the planet, he would push it with alacrity and without a tinge of conscience. Presumably this included Americans who were German-born, such as myself, but I didn't pose that question to him.
It turns out that the German occupying force had killed his father for participating in the resistance movement, which indeed he had been doing. The son's passionate hatred was nonetheless understandable. I recall this event as a flash bulb memory. All context is lost by now, and I can no longer bring the faces up from memory. But the salience of the event must have caused the memory to be so firmly implanted.
The idea of collective German guilt for World War II was fairly universally accepted at the time, even by Germans themselves. And this acceptance ran particularly deep in the succeeding generation. There has probably been no greater disconnect between two generations in history than this one. We judged the older generation quite harshly for having allowed what in fact occurred.
But it was not just a matter of the younger generation rejecting the old. The older generation, too, accepted a certain universal guilt regardless of any specific involvement in German war crimes or even any contemporaneous awareness of such crimes. This is illustrated by the following observation from my own family's history here in the US. Turns out that each of our children customarily addressed us with our first names. There was no precedent for that among our acquaintances, most of whom regarded this as quite strange. Years later I found out that this same phenomenon was commonplace in Germany among those who had children right after the war. This can be seen as a wholesale rejection of Germany's authoritarian heritage that had led it so badly astray.
Now that the USA has its own issue of the violation of the Geneva Convention regarding torture, the question of collective guilt needs once again to be raised. As far as I can tell, there has been essentially no discussion of our common, shared responsibility for what we have allowed to happen. Given my judgmental attitude toward the older generation of Germans, I now have to ask where intellectual honesty and logical consistency would lead in this instance. I have often asked myself, am I doing now what I expected my elders to have done in their time? The answer is unfortunately "No."
Of course I voted "correctly," and have been politically engaged. That avenue was no longer open to Germans after 1933. The hazard of political opposition was such that only those who were fully prepared for martyrdom would be public with their opposition. That number was of course small in Germany, and it will always be small in any society. Everyone else looks like a fellow traveler, regardless of private opinions. We in the USA still have an open politics, and no Gestapo. And yet the torture regime kept going. We tolerated the shading of meanings. We tolerated the discussion of torture in utilitarian terms. It was now acceptable to discuss whether torture had in fact "worked" for us. The moral ground was shifting. A majority of Americans had come to believe that torture would be ok under some conditions. That being the case, is it not time to bring up the question of collective guilt?
The Nuremberg Defense
It gets worse. Our new President, former Professor in Constitutional law, has even invoked the Nuremberg defense. CIA officials who believed themselves to be acting under the law while they were torturing people won't be prosecuted. They didn't even have to be following explicit orders, so our President has even enlarged the scope of the Nuremberg defense. At the time of the Nuremberg trials, it was a live issue as to whether the US was elevating international law to more universal acceptance and respect----or merely exercising victor's justice. The legacy of those trials depends on our current behavior. If we promote the Nuremberg defense at the highest levels of our government today, then history will surely reframe the Nuremberg trials as mere victor's justice. Apparently American exceptionalism amounts to never having to say you're guilty. We exempt ourselves from the International Criminal Court, and yet we frustrate our internal judicial procedures for political reasons.
How might it be otherwise? When I was still in aerospace twenty years ago, the company (Hughes Aircraft) dealt with ethical issues in the following manner: 'If you violate ethical guidelines----even if you are doing this in what you believe to be the company interest---the company will not stand behind you.' Simple enough. Each of us individually has the responsibility not to violate international law, and no superior can exempt us from that responsibility. That used to be crystal-clear to people. That used to be our standard. It must be again, and until that time we bear collective responsibility for the shortfall. The failure to act resolutely now to see that the law is upheld through prosecutions makes us complicit in the original violation.
Matters were much the same when it came to the systematic fire-bombing of Tokyo. Before the war, most Americans regarded the bombing of civilians in cities as morally repugnant. After we had done so, what had previously been a moral question became a utilitarian one: Was it more effective in terms of our war aims to obliterate Tokyo than not to do so? Did it save lives when seen in the larger perspective? On the other hand, if Germany had been the only country to develop a nuclear weapon, and if it had chosen to drop it on London in a last desperate measure to stave off defeat, would that not have been treated as a war crime?
In the Nuremberg trials the targets were the top of the Nazi hierarchy, since they were obviously most responsible for what happened. But when it came to the My Lai massacre, care was taken to indict only at the bottom. Only one officer was indicted, and he was acquitted. So much for command responsibility when it came to our own actions. Lieutenant William Calley was the only one convicted out of 26 soldiers originally accused. He was initially given a life sentence, which was later reduced for the reason that he understood that he was acting under orders. The Nuremberg defense again. Calley served only 4.5 months in military prison, and spent three years in house arrest. The unfairness of only nailing the guy at the bottom of the chain of command was obvious.
Significantly, the three servicemen who brought this war crime to light were denounced even by some Congressmen, and they received death threats. It took thirty more years for their efforts to be honored. This further cements the case for our collective responsibility with respect to this war crime. We were all complicit by acquiescence. Mere acquiescence was enough for us to condemn all Germans. We must hold ourselves to the same standard.
Our Current Challenge
This time, we have a chance to do it right and to insist on full measure of justice. We must, or this country will no longer be subject to the rule of law. Regrettably, the law is the only thing that stands between us and barbarism and tyranny. Every time we relax our vigilance with respect to laws bearing on human dignity and freedom, the noose tightens. There is a ratcheting effect, in which each offense against the law sets a new floor for what is acceptable. We are far down that road already.
In the face of the Geneva conventions our lawless government tried to argue that what we did was not torture. But the Geneva conventions had emplaced sentinels around the word torture itself: they prohibited violence to person, cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity, as well as humiliating and degrading treatment. No one can argue that these bounds were not transgressed, so why even try to do weasel-wording with the word torture itself?