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No, It Has Not 'Always Been This Way'

Thomas S. Harrington

One of the more common responses I get when I try to point out the alarming decline of basic civic values and practices in the US is one version or another of the following: "What are you getting so excited about? It is a dog eat dog world today, just as it has been for the entire trajectory of the human race. The powerful have always sought to fully exploit their ability to toy with the lives of “lesser beings”.

And with this response, these men--they are almost always men--feel they have really put the silly dreamer in his place, and that, moreover, that they have actually engaged in an argument and won it.

And because most Americans today have been brought up on a steady diet of punditry churned out by people whose knowledge base and thinking skills are said to be oh-so-much-greater and sharper than their own, they tend to have very little confidence in their ability to generate personal opinions on social and political issues, and hence, believe they have very little standing for contesting the Darwinian pronouncements of their local, self-proclaimed Alpha male.

When these gents are challenged by some one who has actually spent a little time studying the march of western civilization—the history they breezily dismiss as one long exercise in organized looting and unbridled aggression--they usually try to change the subject.

Why? Because their commandingly voiced “knowledge” of the past really doesn't go much beyond the tweeter-depth slogans they have been given by the corporate media.

Last Thursday was the 50th anniversary of the hanging of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, man who was, as you know, one of the prime architects of the Nazi plan to eliminate European Jewry.

"It is at times such as these that we need to decide whether the juridical system we claim to live within, forged out of a desire to hold our basest instincts in check, responds to a set of collectively internalized moral values, or is simply a set of uplifting words on a page."

A few days before, the New York Times provided us with an inside view of how that progressive champion and Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama sits down each week and decides who he is going to assassinate by remote control. The US president’s lethal edicts are generated purely on the basis of suspicions, suspicions which, in the case of so-called "signature strikes", could be as little as a pattern of "questionable" telephone calls.

In the case of Eichmann, there was a rich and abundant documentation regarding his culpability in the effort to murder industrial quantities of human beings.

And yet, Eichmann was given a trial and the right to defend himself. Indeed, the Israeli state even paid for him to have a defense lawyer. And far for from bloodthirstily hyperventilating at the prospect of his impending death, Jewish and non-Jewish thinkers and media figures from around the world engaged in a lively debate regarding the propriety of using capital punishment in this matter.

This, of course, came some 17 years after the Nuremberg Trials where many, if not all, of the same rights were extended to people who had cast an entire continent into an orgy of destruction which caused tens of millions of deaths.

The officials tried at Nuremburg, and later, Eichmann, could have easily been whacked by undercover agents.

So why did the allies in 1945-46, and then the Israelis in 1962, not do so?

Because the leaders of the prosecuting societies understood--at that time at least--that the real test of a person’s morality, and from there, the durability of system of laws within which his condition as a citizen is inscribed, is gauged by what that person and that system do in the face of truly disturbing and grotesque occurrences.

It is at times such as these that we need to decide whether the juridical system we claim to live within, forged out of a desire to hold our basest instincts in check, responds to a set of collectively internalized moral values, or is simply a set of uplifting words on a page.

In other words, back then we still understood that what was really on trial in Nuremberg and later in Jerusalem were not so much the Nazi villains as ourselves, and our oft-stated desire to live in a culture of laws and civilizing values.

So the next time some know-it-all “refutes” your observations about the decline of our civic morality by telling you that there is “nothing new under the sun”, ask him how and why it was that Eichmann and other Nazis got full due process while guys living in Yemen or the so called Af-Pak region—people whose only crime might be having a cell phone conversation with, or showing up at the funeral of, someone the operatives of the deeply corrupt and anti-democratic intelligence services of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have identified as an “enemy”--are coolly murdered without due process by the president of the United States.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Thomas S. Harrington

Thomas S. Harrington

Thomas S. Harrington is professor of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and the author of Public Intellectuals and Nation Building in the Iberian Peninsula, 1900–1925: The Alchemy of Identity (Bucknell University Press, 2014).

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