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Sunday, June 30, 2019

From one who knows, some clarity

Is Trump committing crimes against humanity?

Pic of the MomentThe last surviving prosecutor from the Nuremberg Trials is 99 years old. That’s him, above. I don’t know him — but I feel like I’d like to. Here’s what he thinks about the things that America’s been doing lately. Kids in cages, “family separations”, desperate people in camps.

Think about that for a moment.

The man who brought the fascists to justice the first time around describes what’s happening in America today as crimes against humanity — just like last time

Wouldn’t he know? Who else is better positioned than him to say?

And yet you don’t hear anyone in American media or its intellectual class ever — ever — saying that phrase, using that idea, emptying that concept, and all the lessons of history in it, do you? But how can you fight something that you refuse to even identify, see, know? You can’t. 


Yet I’ve never heard an Ezra Klein or a Chris Hayes say it — not once. But if they aren’t saying it now — when kids are dying in cages — will they ever? Maybe when it’s convenient and easy? And if they can’t say it now — does that make them complicit, in a small way, too? What about you? Wait — does just “saying” something mean anything at all?

Tough questions, I know. But they have to be asked, my friends. Have to be. Why? To honor history, the dead, and the living alike. When we fail to call crimes against humanity what they are, we become many things, none of which are good. Fools, cowards, ignoramuses, disgraces — maybe even complicit enablers. Why? 

I want to explain why that phrase, idea, concept matters so crucially — especially in times like these. The concept of “crimes against humanity” is one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments.

(I think that Americans don’t have a good read on this subject because America’s one of the few countries that never ratified the Rome Statute. The treaty which passed an international law making things like genocide and torture crimes — and so even America’s most famous pundits literally seem to have no idea what crimes against humanity are, or why they matter. 

They seem to think that this idea doesn’t matter at all, when in fact it is precisely what was designed to prevent fascism. And if fascism is rising in America now — it’s not a coincidence that Americans have been taught not to take exactly the things which prevent it seriously)

At the end of the last world war, when the shocking and unimaginable scale and scope of Nazi atrocities were revealed, the world was faced with a difficult question. How to do justice? 

Existing crimes didn’t seem to be nearly enough. Murder, assault, theft. These are things one individual commits against another. But what do you call it when an entire nation turns on vulnerable groups — and tried to eradicate them all? Systematically? Using the machinery of the state?

Crimes as we had known them so far in human history paled in comparison to the sheer horror of the Holocaust. To put the Nazis on trial, an entirely new category of crime had to be invented. Learned and wise people had to sit down and think about this difficult question: how do we do justice to something as horrific as trying to exterminate an entire people?

And so the idea of a “crime against humanity” was born. The idea is that some crimes are so terrible that they don’t just violate another person’s rights, possessions, belongings. They are a deeper kind of theft. A truer kind of violence. They steal away the deepest thing that we can be said to have. Our humanity. All of ours — victim, perpetrator, bystander, unwilling participant.

They literally dehumanize the victim — some people are imagined to be less than human, to be animals or vermin. But they dehumanize the perpetrators, too. The Nazis invented the gas chambers because shooting Jews with bullets was making even the most hardened SS officers sick. 

They dehumanize everyone involved in them — the accountants, the officials, the bureaucrats, the petty enforcers. And they dehumanize entire societies, ages, and eras in that way, something like a black tide sweeping across a land.

The wise men of Nuremberg understood something genuinely remarkable: that humanity’s greatest accomplishment to that point had been the creation of inalienable personhood, which underpinned everything else, rights, constitutions, democracies. But it was a double edged sword. 

People could also be made unpeople — and once they were unpeople, any kind of abuse was fair game. Hence, a “crime against humanity” — to violate the personhood of a people, a group, a race, with the intent of harming them collectively, and in so doing, by eroding and chipping away at personhood itself. But chipping away at inalienable personhood violates us all.

Do you see how remarkable, how beautiful, how intelligent and brave this line of thinking is? If you think about it in the context of long, deep history — enslaved, suffering, bonded people fighting kings and empires and “nobles” for personhood — I think you will agree with me that the idea of a crime against humanity, against personhood itself, is one of history’s and humanity’s greatest accomplishments.

Now. I’ve discussed that in exacting detail because I want you to really understand it. American media and American thinking will never teach you this stuff — it seems to not care. Or maybe it can’t care, given America’s dark history of dehumanizing blacks and natives. And yet that inability, that reluctance, to grapple with this subject has backfired. If America had signed up to international laws banning genocide and torture — would it really be so easily committing them now?

Let’s think about what America’s doing in this context of crimes against humanity, using this beautiful and elegant idea.

Putting kids in cages — torturing them. Separating families — abducting little children. Leaving them to fend for themselves, with barely any food, water, or medicine. Putting them in places literally called “Dog Pounds.” Raiding towns and shops and subways, looking for “aliens.”

What are these things — really, not just in some kind of abstract way? Once the idea of crimes against humanity had taken shape, then it was given formal, precise, technical definition. You can read it here, in the Rome Statute. And if you read the Rome Statute, you will immediately see that what the last surviving Nuremberg Prosecutor has to say is starkly, inescapably true.

The things we are doing now to vulnerable and innocent people are not just “possibly” or “metaphorically” crimes against humanity — they are actual and very real crimes against humanity. When kids are taken from their parents, that is a literal, precise form of genocide — it’s one of the actual definitions of it. 

When kids are caged, that’s torture — again, the literal definition of it. When kids are put in Dog Pounds, that’s dehumanization. When those kids are unable to speak or process reality for months, years — that’s traumatization as a result of abuse.

Many Americans cry at this juncture — “so what! They’re guilty!” Of what? Crossing a border? So what? That does not give us the right to abuse them. To violate their sovereign humanity and personhood. 

They’re not the “criminals” here, they have harmed precisely no one — we are, my friends. None of those things are sufficient to violate them in ways that strip them of personhood. None of those things justify genocide and torture in concentration camps. 

That is what the idea of a crime against humanity says. That nothing — nothing — merits the stripping away of personhood, the systematic violation of a people, the removal of humanity. Not a thing — and definitely not being a refugee or migrant.

Here is a difficult truth. The things that our leaders are doing to all these vulnerable people are crimes against humanity. Don’t take my word for it — take the word of a Nuremberg Prosecutor. But that is the gravest kind of crime we know of.

Who commits crimes against humanity? Who builds concentration camps, and puts children in them? Fascists do. That is what he is warning you of. He is telling you we are on a lonely and twisted path now — winding straight into the abyss.

It’s imperative that every single American now recognizes all this for what it is. The game we’ve been playing for the last few years — looking away politely, hoping the bad guys come to their senses — was always a losing proposition. 

The bad guys don’t have consciences or morals — would they be bad guys if they did? Until and unless all these things are recognized for what they are — genuine crimes against humanity, the real thing , identified by a prosecutor of fascism as fascism — who will have the power to stop them?

The whole purpose of the idea of crimes against humanity was to create a mechanism of justice that would prevent fascism ever rising again, by deterring it. But if a country’s like America — unwilling to use that very mechanism so much so that it’s unable to even utter the words “crimes against humanity” — then won’t fascism obviously be all the more enabled to rise?

Even the last surviving Nuremberg Prosecutor identifies what’s happening in America as crimes against humanity. Do you? Why don’t the Ezras and Chrises the world? 

But their ignorance or their cowardice or their complicity can’t and shouldn’t be the example you follow in these dark times.You should listen to the man who brought the fascists to justice the first time around. When he calls all this crimes against humanity — you had better hear it, my friends. 

Because those who are ignorant of history are damned to repeat it.