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The case of Adolf Eichmann shows that the death penalty can be just

His crimes were of the gravest nature; his life was an affront to the families of those who died in the Holocaust

By on Thursday, 7 April 2011

Adolf Eichmann is flanked by guards in the Jerusalem courtroom where he was tried for war crimes (AP Photo)

Adolf Eichmann is flanked by guards in the Jerusalem courtroom where he was tried for war crimes (AP Photo)

Turning on the car radio yesterday, I chanced on the end of a Radio 4 programme – the sort that makes you park the car and carry on listening. It was broadcaster Gavin Esler in Jerusalem, examining “the legacy of Adolf Eichmann” on the 50th anniversary of his trial and execution. Everyone who followed that trial will recall the kidnapping of Eichmann by Mossad agents from Buenos Aires in 1961, as a result of a tip-off from agents of Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. They will remember the book about Eichmann’s trial by Hannah Arendt, in which she coined the phrase “the banality of evil”. They will visualise the black and white newspaper photographs of a bespectacled, balding, elderly man in the dock of the courtroom – the man who had been the chief organiser of the deportation of millions of Jews to the death camps in Poland. They will have pondered Eichmann’s main defence: “I was simply carrying out orders.”

I tuned in as the three judges in the Israeli court sentenced him to death by hanging for crimes against the Jewish people; crimes against humanity; and war crimes. Those like me who followed the news at the time thought the verdict a foregone conclusion – not unlike the verdicts at the Nuremberg Trials, which Eichmann had successfully evaded by escaping to South America. The sentence was carried out on May 30 1962. It was followed by cremation, with the ashes scattered in the sea outside Israel’s territorial waters.

Why am I writing all this? Because it made me ponder the whole question (yet again) of the morality of capital punishment. Many Catholics think that capital punishment is now forbidden by the Church. Certainly the late pope, John Paul II, in his public statements about it, seemed to indicate that civilised countries should now have recourse to other means of punishment. Other people condemn capital punishment under a general pro-life banner which lumps together the adult guilty, like Eichmann, and the unborn who are innocent.

Personally, I make a distinction between these two categories. Guilt does require some form of punishment and justice must be seen to be done – whereas abortion is always the death of the innocent. Just checking the Catechism of the Catholic Church, I see that on page 488, paragraph 2266, it states: “Preserving the common good of society requires rendering the aggressor unable to inflict harm. For this reason the traditional teaching of the Church has acknowledged as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty…”

Writing as a Christian, I am sympathetic to the Israeli trial and execution of this man, proved beyond doubt to have organised mass murder. In the radio programme, Esler interviewed Michael Goldman-Gilad, survivor of Auschwitz and the Israeli police interrogator of Eichmann during his trial. Now in his 80s, Goldman-Gilad said, “We hanged one person; we couldn’t hang him six million times”, thus recognising the symbolic aspect of the trial and execution. He did not sound vengeful, simply adding “I felt relieved” after it was all over.

As I see it, Eichmann’s continued life was a challenge to Israel’s collective memory of suffering; it was an affront to the families of those for whose death he had responsibility, families who wanted justice; his crimes were of the gravest nature. The death penalty was, in this case, appropriate.

  • Anonymous

    You are aware of JPII’s new stations of the cross I take it?

  • Hans-Georg Lundahl

    I know that defenition, and since -1 is not a number per se, but a relation involving number (“one less than”) or a number with an operation, -1 is no square number and can have no square root. Hence: it is raving nonsense and Gauss was a heretic in mathematics.

  • Earlscheib1964

    u r the most ignorant pussillaminous pipsqueak i have yet to encounter  besides the spiritual slut sr. prejeans thrw in a stupid movie by the filthy hollywood crowd esposing the assinine bootless counterproductive inffficacious feminized approach to criminal justice of the stupid nun and if she is the real thing why why?? the secular outfit!!this stooge plastic prelate should go spend some time in blood bespattered baltimore m.d.!!yes why not check some of their blood soaked streets in this ostensibily cath. city?!!??the pope can go back to the papal  palace and with the swiss guards next door i don,t think the pontiff will lose too mush sleep too bad i can,t say the same for the poor slob in east st. louis another ostensibily cath. city with an atrocious crime rate cath. gov.s and i saw the worst with the reprobated mario cuomo in n.y. all  cry the crocodile for the murderers  thats what the stupid moviesuggests and what more insidious why to ruin demoralize and damn a society then get the murderers and rapists back on the street corners of every medium sized city in this benighted land!?!!this was greatly achieved by another reprobated irish am. cath. the malovent william brennan who has effectively released a torrent of bloodshed upon our once relatively same suburban society a society i grew up in in the fabulous fifties when our suburban home had i lock on the door and the car keys were left under the sun vusor of the rambler unlocked   !!car theft was non existent home breakins un heardof and a woman could walk down the streets of our small city totally unafraid totally safe anytime!!look i would say to a dupe like u with the fastidious squeamish value systems what i heard a drill sargent scream at a hapless trainee over  40 yrs ago on a freezing morning at fort dix n.j. another official no death penalty state with its crime infested cities like newark camden    get your head out of your ass!!

  • Donald Miller

    “Just checking the Catechism of the Catholic Church, I see that on page 488, paragraph 2266″

    As a non-Catholic, my first inclination is to be astounded that someone has to search for a citation to state why they can uphold a certain position. Why not just let one’s innate sense of right and wrong do the job?

    Then I realize that I do the equivalent of the same thing when I turn to the great thinkers that have come before us and who have given us guidance.

    With regard to the death penalty, I’m very apprehensive about its use. We do know what people of all ‘types” are capable of when they have power. The history of both the Catholic and Protestant churches are filled with a gruesome litany of Crimes Against Humanity. Burning each other alive, boiling in oil, the appalling list goes on and on.

    We, humanity, or at least I should say, Western humanity, seem to have unshackled ourselves from this savagery, and I will use the slippery slope argument to suggest we not take a chance of back-sliding into that mire ever again.

  • Donald Miller

    I’m not a Believer, but what about the simple idea from the Bible, which states: “Vengeance is mine. I will repay.”? Why take matters into your own fallible hands when your boss has stated in no uncertain terms that He will dispense justice (vengeance)?