National tone of ‘disrespect’ is unsettling

Many people believe the purpose of the Nuremberg trials after World War II was to punish the Nazi leaders for their crimes. They indeed did that — but the fundamental reason for establishing the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg was to cement the idea that nations must be governed by the rule of law, and that waging aggressive war was the supreme international crime.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, the chief American prosecutor at Nuremberg, made it plain that these laws apply to leaders of nations, as well as all other citizens. The evidence made it devastatingly clear that German Nazi leaders were guilty of waging aggressive war, crimes against humanity, theft and being members of a criminal organization. Three defendants in the original trial were acquitted; the rest were punished according to the severity of their acts, with 12 sentenced to be executed by hanging after the judgment at Nuremberg. (Hermann Goering managed to take poison and cheat the hangman.)

They did not have jury trials, but were tried and convicted by a panel of judges from the victorious allied powers: The United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union. Those found guilty were not convicted specifically of “genocide,” but that word made its first appearance at Nuremberg. It was first suggested by Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin to describe what the Nazis had done.

Genocide then began to be used to describe the systematic murder of groups of people because of a certain defining characteristic, such as religion, color, or sexual orientation. The closest the charges at Nuremberg came was “crimes against humanity,” and a number of defendants were convicted of that.

The trials may not have been perfect, but they established important precedents. Those individuals found guilty were punished for the crimes they carried out while acting in a position of authority as agents of their state. The victors also made an effort to be fair (despite the desire of the Soviet judges to convict every defendant.) The International Military Tribunal showed the world that it was willing to stand up for individual responsibility and the rule of law.

That was America’s creed in 1945. Flash forward today, and we seem to have become a nation where disrespect has increasingly become the norm.

Americans no longer just push against the lines of civilization and democracy that created our country and our way of life, they are increasingly agitating to completely tear down those lines.

Too many clearly mean to make political points and get their way, and have no respect for our heritage, or the rights of others.

Why else would a motley crew attack and defile our nation’s iconic Capitol if they did not intend to tear down the framework of the America we know? Do they believe that living in an America without laws would be better?

Do they really believe we’d be better off if there were no government other than the will of Donald Trump?

Until recently, the Supreme Court has mostly stayed above the partisan fray. Despite an increasingly circus-like confirmation process, even the least impressive nominees have tended to behave with honor on the Court.

However, that too has begun to change, and the highest court’s prestige was severely shaken when someone released a draft written by or for Justice Samuel Alito of a proposed majority opinion that would overturn Roe v Wade, the court’s 1973 ruling that established abortion as a Constitutional right.

It was not immediately clear who might have leaked the document, or why.

Some thought it was done by a liberal clerk who wanted to spark outrage among those who support abortion rights. Others thought it might have been leaked by a conservative trying to prevent the ruling from being watered down. But what the release actually did was weaken the high court itself.

Though he can have had nothing to do with it, it almost made me think that it was the work of U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) a scandal-plagued congressman who has recklessly shown contempt for our institutions.

If you call me a traditionalist, well, I cheerfully plead guilty. After living almost 83 years, I have discovered that barriers and traditions are often there for good reasons, including engendering respect. Coloring outside the lines is all well and good if the purpose is to make society stronger.

But doing it just because someone thinks they can is at best silly and selfish and worst of all, dangerous. I realize all of this is too rational for the irrational, the guys who like to say America stinks, and proclaim they ain’t going to take it anymore. To them I say, try working on the frontiers between Poland and Ukraine for six months or so, then come back home.

But for the rest of us, be strong; the summer has just begun, and the harvest a long way off. We don’t know yet how much we will reap of what we have sown.

Douglas Neckers is an organic chemist, the McMaster distinguished professor emeritus and the founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green State University. He is also a former board chair of the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown.


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