Truth, Justice, and the American Line

There is a tragic irony in the fact that Simon Wisenthal died the same weekend that Pvt. Linndie England’s case continued to be deliberated; ironic in that Wisenthal spent his life bringing to justice Nazi officers who played a role in the brutalities against Jews. Not surprising, many of these officers defended themselves with lines like, “Ich war gerade folgende Aufträge.” Translation: I was just following orders.

We are now hearing lines like that again. Linndie England’s case took up renewed energy this past week with testimony from a clinical psychologist. Conclusion: England has an overly compliant personality; moreover, she was looking to boyfriend Graner as her “social accomplice” for guidance on morally acceptable behavior. Translation: I was just following orders.

Some will wonder whether such a comparison is unduly harsh and unfair. Certainly England didn’t kill anybody. She just had them lay naked one on top of another, and took repeated opportunities to sexually abuse and humiliate Iraqi prisoners: acts which, to many Muslims, are worse than death. Are we somehow suggesting to a world-at-large that treating a human like an animal is evil when it’s a Nazi to a Jew, but is psychological when it’s an American to an Iraqi?

The old lines of defense ring hollow, whether dressed up in a German accent or masqueraded as a psychological condition. The reality is that England abused prisoners and, in that, committed a crime. She could have chosen not to, she didn’t. How many Nazis would have been released had they argued, “I was simply in love with Hitler and trusted that he would not use improper techniques”? Not a single one. And yet this is the defense that is supposed to exonerate England’s actions, portraying her as some troubled victim of love and circumstance.

Well, there’s another line that we should be concerned with: a line drawn in the sand of morality. On the one side stand those “evil” Nazis who were “gerade folgende Aufträge,” (and all those like them). On the other side stand those who held them accountable for their actions, orders or not. On the one side is truth and justice. On the other is hypocrisy and justification. The only real question remaining for any of us is where will we stand?