To the Editor:
The night seven Nazis were hanged was, as Arthur Settel [May] has occasion to mention, a joint experience of his and mine. Settel is a good, evocative reporter. I had previously helped with the review of one of the seven cases, and I observed the meticulous, soul-searching fidelity to truth and duty with which Mr. McCloy confirmed the death sentences. That is worth saying and repeating. I am prompted to write, however, by what touches me more personally: Mr. Podhoretz’s comment on Settel’s memoir, in which he takes a position that I should like, but am unable, to understand.
To borrow a word Mr. Podhoretz uses in his comments on a separate point, I am inescapably a Jew; I might say ineradicably. I am also deeply convinced that capital punishment is irrational and evil. My conviction might not have hardened as yet in 1951. I really can’t say. I cannot now remember what it felt like not to abhor capital punishment. Settel reports me as saying then that the executions should have taken place earlier, and that they would do no harm politically. I have no cause now to retract that. At any rate, when it became apparent that duty did not foreclose a choice, I elected not to see the hangings that Settel witnessed.
I felt as Settel did that there would be something—something almost delicious—of elemental justice in the killing of these men before my eyes and in the appearance of my name on their death certificates. My blood was on their hands, and quite literally so; the blood of my kin. I recall expressing this thought at the time in a letter to my father. But I stayed away. And I should naturally like to think, and have since thought, that it was not merely out of squeamishness, but on principle, or at least on an emergent principle; namely, that legal killing (war to the side, and I assert the difference without arguing it here) is an evil to which, if duty permits a choice, I will not lend myself in any way. I do not now, certainly, hesitate to include these executions in my condemnation of capital punishment.
But Mr. Podhoretz not only sees “of course, a vast difference” between killing a Barbara Graham or, I would assume, a Caryl Chessman, on the one hand, and an Oswald Pohl on the other; he also tells me that for a Jew to condemn these executions altogether is barbaric. Yet, he allows, “capital punishment is surely wrong.”
I pause to catch my breath. Capital punishment is immoral, as he tells us Camus has said, because it is the invocation of absolute and irrevocable means to implement relative and fallible judgments. I have indicated what I think of the quality of Mr. McCloy’s judgment in these cases. But surely it remained relative and fallible. There should be no difficulty in passing judgment on the crimes as such. Our moral categories and our confidence, albeit finite, in their validity should be equal to that task. But when it comes to these seven men, to a determination of the facts of their behavior and to an assessment of their individual guilt—there, though as to one at least I myself was persuaded beyond doubt—there judgment is of necessity too painfully relative and fallible to justify killing.
Nor is that all that needs to be said concerning the immorality of capital punishment. It is immoral under any circumstances to a Mr. Britt, the professional executioner, whom it causes to do our killing, and whom it cannot help but brutalize in the process. All for what? For the sake of some mystic irrationality Mr. Podhoretz calls retribution, which we all naturally respond to in some degree, but which we ought all to be humane and human (the distinction is his) and civilized enough to rise above—all of us, Jews with the rest.
Alexander M. Bickel
Associate Professor of Law
Yale University Law School
New Haven, Connecticut
To the Editor:
The editor’s comments on Arthur Settel’s moving recollection of the execution of seven Nazis were addressed to Jewish readers. As a non-Jew (of Irish descent) I would like to broaden the issue he raised to include the attitudes I suggest non-Jews must take toward the gruesome subject of retribution for crimes against a particular group of human beings.
The criminals in question were more guilty of unspeakable atrocities against Jews than against non-Jews. But Mr. Settel says that these atrocities were described in the four-power charter as “crimes against humanity.” Although Jews were the principal victims of Nazism, any sensitive non-Jew recognizes that the demoniac drive of the Nazis encompassed all of humanity but themselves. Nazis divided the world into two classes, the human and the superhuman. We who call ourselves human must condemn the superhuman as inhuman. For this reason judgment and execution of the seven was carried out largely by non-Jews—on behalf of humanity.
When I visited Dachau for the first time last summer, trying to reconstruct the unbelievable scenes of bestiality that had taken place there, I did not think of the victims as Jews (some were not) but as people somehow related to me. It is this kinship that makes it right to stand absolutely against the torturers who may look like ordinary men, but who bear no spiritual relationship to humanity.
Robert W. Minton
Free Europe Organizations and Publications
New York, N.Y.
To the Editor:
Evaluating the executions described by Arthur Settel, Norman Podhoretz wrote in his column, “Would it not be nobler to surrender to our spontaneous outrage . . . to honor our impulses of charity and compassion above our wish to see vengeance done . . .?” This “is not a question that can be answered lightly or dogmatically,” notwithstanding the fact that the desire for vengeance is admittedly “primitive.”
The effort to answer the question does indeed challenge “the limits of our moral capacity.” But whose moral capacity, primarily, is involved here? The executions were ordered and handled in the name of the United States government, acting in concert with the governments of France, Great Britain, and the USSR. The relevant moral capacity might therefore seem to belong to all the citizens of the four countries concerned—at the very least, to the citizens of the United States. Yet Mr. Podhoretz’s comments proceed, irresponsibly, to ignore this crucial general question in order to discuss instead a specially Jewish one.
It is interesting, and doubtless to the average non-Jew mildly consoling, to know that one can “force himself to approve of the hanging because he is a Jew.” From this perspective, “a cold-blooded execution . . . seems . . . to approach adequacy” and cold-bloodedness, professionalism, impersonality, so viewed, “seem right.” These, I grant, are facts. . . . But if they are sufficient or even necessary to build a case for capital punishment per se their significance escapes me.
Conscientious non-Jews, weighed down by moral questionings they have brought upon themselves through effecting these executions, might find solace by converting to Judaism. But this surely is not the moral of Mr. Podhoretz’s argument.
What, then, for the non-Jew, is its moral ?
Mr. Podhoretz writes:
Mr. Bickel, of course, is right when he says that logically one’s opposition to capital punishment must admit of no exceptions. Yet my point was precisely that I could not in all honesty adhere to this logic even though I am myself an opponent of capital punishment, and that the reason is that I am unwilling as a Jew to blunt the edge of my feelings about the Nazis. I used the word “barbaric” to describe any Jew’s unambiguous condemnation of the executions because I believe that there are two kinds of barbarism, one at the “lower”—or primitive—end of the scale and another at the “upper”—or civilized—end. (What made the Nazis a uniquely monstrous phenomenon was that they brought the two forms together: the savagery, brutality, and cruelty we associate with wild animals and the complete divorce from spontaneous “natural” feeling that we associate with an overly urbanized and mechanized culture.) There is nothing mystical about this distinction; nor is the epithet “natural” especially problematic in this connection: even the law recognizes the difference between “cold-blooded” (i.e. “unfeeling”) murder and murder for the sake of revenge or passion (which is assumed to be natural in certain cases).
I quite agree with Messrs. Miller and Minton that the predicament I was trying to describe is not one peculiar to Jews. I limited my analysis to Jews only because I think that the Jews present a relatively simple case as compared with people who never suffered personally from the Nazis. The Jews, after all, were persecuted by Hitler for no reason other than their Jewishness, which means that any Jew anywhere was potentially one of his victims.