I recently led a discussion on war crimes and torture for a group of local residents in Great Decisions, with whom I meet weekly for about three months a year to discuss international issues.
The result was quite interesting, so I thought I’d share a summary of the discussion here. I do so quite aware we neither solved the problem (as if that’s possible in two hours) nor ended torture or war crimes. However, I think we did delve into some of the hard questions involving the issue.
I thought I’d share this to start a conversation about some difficult questions and issues. As one person said there are few topics with more gray areas than this one.
I was feeling up for a challenge, so I offered to lead the discussion on War Crimes. I wanted the discussion to be interesting and intellectually stimulating. I think I succeeded.
I only considered for a minute taking the easy way out, namely asking the group: "Ok, who supports war crimes? Nobody? Ok, we all agree on this one so let's go home."
I also wanted the discussion to be distinct from a discussion on torture and war crimes by the group last year. That time one member took the devil's advocate position, asking, "If the police had a terrorist in custody and the only way they can determine the location of a bomb set to go off was to torture him would you support it?" and the classic hypothetical: "Your daughter has been kidnapped and will soon be killed. The only way we can save her is to torture a suspect. NOW do you support torture?
My response, essentially, was this: We should not use extreme circumstances, real or imaginary, to make policy decisions or take ultimate stands on a complicated issues. Better to make those decisions in unemotional circumstances.
Going into the meeting I was ready to play devil's advocate if that's what it was going to take to have an interesting discussion. The downside to most members being liberal is most of them take the same position on issues which leads to a lack of interesting debate on, say, the war.
I began by asking members present to define war crimes and added (this is something
I learned the hard way student teaching) that they can't just give an answer like "crimes that occur during war."
One or two started to look in the book we use as a jumping off point for our discussion but I stopped them explaining I want to hear their definition, not the book's definition. If we're going to have a discussion about war crimes the first thing we should do Is define our terms, I said.
So who wants to take a stab at it? One person surmised where I was heading – who decides what a war crime is? Do the same laws apply in all wars – and threw out the idea that what may be a war crime in one country might not be a war crime in another area. And with that we were off to discuss how difficult it is to impose the same standards universally.
A friend who I convinced to join the group this year called on his Jesuit seminary days to raise some good questions about why killing is acceptable in some situations (self-defense, say) but not in others.
We talked about those people who consider war itself a crime therefore, to them, every further action is just a matter of degrees
Having demonstrated that the topic on the table is so complicated we can't even all agree on a simple definition I suggested we switch from the gray area to one that is probably more black and white.
I could feel some relax a bit like, ah, here comes an easier topic.
"Ok, so… genocide? Do we have anyone here who is ok with genocide? No?" Ok, so we're all on the same page now that genocide is wrong. What then do you do with the people who commit a genocide?
This then veered into discussions of the various truth and reconciliation commissions in the world and the tricky question of whether it is worth giving amnesty to killers in exchange for them sharing what they know. We split on that one.
I then made things more complicated: If you are going to prosecute people who do war crimes, be it genocide or others, how do you decide who to prosecute? The head of the government? What about the people who argue that they were just following orders?
Ok, I said, let's try shifting this discussion from genocides and past wars to the current war, specifically the torturing of prisoners.
One person argued that President Bush can't be blamed or charged for what his troops do because he may not have known about it. Another responded that if he didn't know about it he should have found out since he is, after all, "the decider," as Bush once put it.
Others said it's not fair to blame those below who are just following orders while another said that argument is a cop-out – there's a point where you have to choose to resist orders. I suggested it was a catch-22.
I brought up the fascinating varying levels of documentation from the Khmer Rouge, which took photos of many of those before they were killed, to The Turkish genocide of the Armenians, which to this day can't be spoken of publicly.
I mentioned discussions about documentation and how, to this day, there are still archives of Nazi activities that are not fully open. And yet I also mentioned my skepticism that those who don't want to accept the actions of their government, be it Germany or Turkey, will change their position based on what is found in the archives.
We talked about the need for an international body to deal with war crimes issues and well… I won't bore you with all the details but let's just say that we didn't solve All the issues. Shocking, no?
Meanwhile there is another catch-22: The one international organization in place to deal with issues of this import is the United Nations but I can't think of any international organization that seems to get less respect than said U.N.
Ok, that's too broad. The problem, you see, with both the meeting and this article is where do you end. Hell, where do you start? If something considered a cultural norm in one country, like child labor, is considered a crime in other countries, than what do we do?
What should be done with war criminals? Who is to decide who is and who isn't a war criminal?
What about the victims, who are tortured but later released, as depicted in movies like
The Road To Guantanamo? Are they not deserving of some redress?
And perhaps one of the hardest questions of them all: Should criminals be given amnesty – no punishment – in exchange for confessing what they know? On the one hand it moves some victims towards that possibly unattainable goal of closure but on the other hand if I saw someone confess to killing and he then went scot free I'd be outraged.
What do you think?