The most interesting part of Eichmann in Jerusalem to me was the question of what a court can do to “prove” guilt that is simply apparent. We all know that Eichmann committed atrocities the likes of which it is difficult to even comprehend, and he did them to human beings who had done nothing to deserve them. The court knows it, the reader knows it, Arendt knows it, and Eichmann knows it. The question thus becomes where a court’s authority runs out; obviously Eichmann’s argument that concentration camps were legal when he sent people to them is moot, but that raises many other ethical dilemmas. If one court can retroactively wipe the legitimacy of an entire legal system-one not its own, even-where is the line drawn between Israel condemning Hitler’s orders as bunk and Hitler himself stripping Jews of citizenship in order to kill them with no legal culpability under German laws of his day? Obviously the answer is that one of these is right and one is wrong-I can see that because I am human. But the question of what the law can do, being that the ideal of just law is its objectivity and its independence from human presumptions of right and wrong, is a lot murkier.
The easy answer to this is that no human law will ever be able to make sense of such questions. Eichmann and every other complicit cog in the machine of the Holocaust will serve their due justice in due time, whether or not any judge on earth pronounces them guilty. This is a somewhat comforting answer, but it is not sufficient, particularly not for a newly formed Israel with lots of wrongs to attempt to right. Though I may believe Eichmann will face his rightful punishment from a higher power than any on earth, to let him go free of any attempted justice would not be right, either. This is where I believe Arendt loses her faith in the court, and part of why she refuses to not be critical of Ben-Gurion, the lawyer, the jury and the judges. Obviously she agreed with their eventual verdict, but I think she thought it was based on the wrong evidence. His feelings on Jewish people, his rank within the government, his insanity or lack thereof, none of those things matter. What he did was wrong because it was wrong, and I think finding a way to implement that legally is a lot easier said than done, but that was the challenge that Arendt, and I, would have liked to see them succeed in.
One thought on “Eichmann and the power of the law”
I’m really struck by your comment that there’s something really inadequate about just getting to the point of identifying law’s inherent shortcomings and leaving it at that – that Arendt doesn’t want to romanticize law, but that there’s also this need to think about what precedent gets set not merely by the atrocities Eichmann helped commit, but also by an international legal system charged with holding him accountable for those atrocities. So important.
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