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Punish Torture? Hollywood's Answer.

Ever since the Justice Department released four memos from the time of George W. Bush’s administration that justified waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques, Washington has been abuzz. Some politicians reacted by calling call for prosecution of high-level officials. Others defended the people who crafted these policies because the aim of forceful interrogation was to protect the country from terrorist attacks. Americans who are curious about the stakes in this lively debate can obtain useful insights from a 1961 Hollywood movie, Judgment at Nuremberg.

That film depicts the trial of four German jurists who abused their nation’s justice system in the Nazi period. Judgment at Nuremberg focuses especially on the case of a distinguished German legal figure, Ernst Janning, played by Burt Lancaster. Janning, a composite character representing several real-life jurists, detested the Nazis but nevertheless supported their heinous policies against the Jews and other victims. An American judge, Dan Haywood, played by Spencer Tracy, declares the jurists guilty of crimes against humanity.

Haywood’s concluding speech identifies aspects of the case that apply to any situation in which fear grips a population and leaders claim they must stretch the law to protect the country from dangerous enemies. “Then it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival upon what is expedient – to look the other way,” says Haywood. The Nazis violated principles recognized by every civilized society, yet the German justices gave the abuses legal cover rather than challenging them. “How easily it can happen” when no one objects, Haywood points out.

Although the Bush administration’s handling of terror suspects deserves criticism, it is certainly not comparable to the heinous practices of the Nazis. Nevertheless the movie’s general messages about dealing with wrongs of the past relate to the current debates about interrogations.

Judgment at Nuremberg shows that in the years immediately following World War II American leaders worried about the emerging cold war with the communists. Since West Germany had become a valuable ally in the struggle against the Soviet Union, some U.S. officials did not want to press charges concerning the recent Nazis’ abuses.

In a related way, some American political leaders now recommend diminished attention to the controversial issue of waterboarding. Publicizing mistakes of the past is counterproductive, they argue. These politicians recognize that officials in the Bush administration provided legal cover for actions that resembled torture. They understand that some figures in the CIA participated in aggressive waterboarding (including 266 actions against two Qaeda suspects). Nevertheless, they say it is time to “move on.”

Politicians in both parties support this position. Some Republicans say information about interrogation techniques should not be made public, and they claim that aggressive techniques yielded important intelligence. Democrats warn that prosecution of officials from the Bush administration could poison future relations with Republican congressmen and greatly complicate President Barack Obama’s efforts to advance his legislative agenda.

The President seems eager to avoid a bloody political battle over the issue of torture. He recommended “looking forward and not backward.” Obama and Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr. want to shield CIA agents from responsibility for criminal charges. They have left the door open to investigation of figures in the Bush administration who crafted the policies, but they have generally lagged behind the Democratic congressmen in responding to the public outcry for investigations.

Judgment at Nuremberg suggests that embarrassing evidence about past wrongs should not be pushed aside for political convenience. In a surprising moment in the film Ernst Janning, the distinguished German jurist who supported Nazi policies despite his personal doubts, acknowledges his complicity and that of many other Germans in the Nazi atrocities. He refuses to cover up the truth, despite pleas from his lawyer to remain quiet. We heard lies from our leaders and we knew better, Janning confesses. “Why did we sit silent? Why did we take part?” If there is any salvation for Germany, argues Janning, “we who know our guilt must admit it . . . . ”

At the end of the film, when the American judge, Dan Haywood, decides the fate of Janning and other jurists, he says a nation reveals a lot about itself during a crisis. In times of intense fear, citizens demand strong measures for “survival,” but what kind of society do they want to save, Haywood asks? A country truly stands for high moral and legal principles “when standing for something is most difficult!”

Judgment at Nuremberg maintains that people demonstrate their true commitment to the rule of law when they confront the embarrassing evidence of their history frankly and openly. The movie reminded Germans of 1961 that they should not look away from recent injustices perpetrated by their leaders. A current screening of Judgment at Nuremberg reminds Americans today that disturbing events from their own recent past ought to be acknowledged, too. We need to know if our policies and practices sanctioned torture. Americans can demonstrate their commitment to democracy by dealing courageously with the facts of that inquiry.