I had the most remarkable sense of historical context while reading Deborah Lipstadt’s book The Eichmann Trial at the very time President Barack Obama announced that American forces had invaded Pakistan and killed Osama Bin Laden. Lipstadt recounts the remarkable reaction in the United States to Eichmann’s abduction from Argentina.
On May 20, 1960 a team of Israelis drugged Adolf Eichmann and spirited him out of Argentina to stand trial in Israel for war crimes. The abduction caused a sensation around the world. No-one blamed the Argentines for being furious at the violation of their sovereignty. What is most interesting to me in retrospect is the reaction in the United States. A vituperative editorial in the Washington Post was typical, calling the operation “jungle law,” and an “act that is divorced from justice.” Time noted the “high disregard of international law.” The Christian Science Monitor declared that the Israelis show themselves no different from the Nazis. Noted Conservative critic William Buckley call the trial a “pernicious effort designed to speak for a mythical legal entity, the Jewish People.” Buckley deplored the fact that whereas Christians focus on the crucifixion of Jesus Christ “for only one month of the year,” “this trial was to last three months.” The New York Times called the act “immoral” and “illegal.”
What a contrast on May 1 of 2011, when Mr. Obama declared that “justice has been done” as he disclosed that American military and C.I.A. operatives had shot Bin Laden in the head and later buried him at sea. The news touched off an outpouring of emotion as crowds gathered outside the White House, in Times Square and at the ground zero site, waving American flags, cheering, shouting, laughing and chanting, “U.S.A., U.S.A.!” In New York City, crowds sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Throughout downtown Washington, drivers honked horns deep into the night.
By killing Bin Laden, the Americans spared themselves many of the issues that the Israelis had to resolve with Eichmann. Who would judge, prosecute and defend Eichmann? What would be the scope and legal status of the crimes for which he would stand trial? What would be the larger historical framework? In the event, the Israelis were scrupulous in trying Eichmann and giving him his chance to speak—despite some questionable aspects noted by Lipstadt.
So how to account for the incredible difference in the reactions of Americans over these two related events? Are there in fact “crimes against humanity” separate from the “crimes against Americans, or French, or Jews” and should the principles of due process and rule of law apply when perpetrators are found?
While I am devoted to the idea that a knowledge of history is important to a good education, good citizenship and even to our humanity, I have never subscribed to the easy assumption that we “learn” from history. I do, however, believe that if history does not supply us with easy answers, it does provoke interesting questions. So this is not a comment on the probity of the reaction to either event, nor on the evil of either protagonist (though it must be noted somewhere that Bin Laden’s crimes pale next to those of Eichmann), or not even on the appropriateness of revenge. The comparison does however leave a sense of unease at what might best be called inconsistency, or worse hypocrisy.