By Abraham Cooper
From the very first day back in 1985, when officials of the Simon Wiesenthal Center first presented a list of Nazi war criminals living in the United Kingdom to then- Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd, I have never quite grown accustomed to this stock question from the media: “Just how long are you people with Wiesenthal going to seek vengeance”?
It pained me that so many were prepared to reduce one man’s lonely quest for justice for 6 million innocent Jewish victims of genocide. And Simon Wiesenthal had every reason to seek vengeance. The Nazis murdered 89 members of his family. Yet, from his first day of freedom in May 1945, until his death at the age of 96, Simon Wiesenthal committed himself to rehabilitating justice, a concept the Nazis had almost succeeded in destroying. When asked whether the trials of the 1,100 Nazi war criminals he exposed amounted to vengeance, he would often answer, “There is no measure of vengeance for a person who killed 10,000 people. What we are striving for is a symbolic measure of justice, convicted criminals, not martyrs for neo-Nazis.”
In truth, a symbolic measure of justice is all Wiesenthal achieved, and some cases–none at all. One of the most outrageous miscarriages of justice involves Antanas Gecas, a former WWII Lithuanian police platoon commander who murdered his fellow Jewish citizens. All efforts to bring him before the bar of justice have been successfully thwarted. Mr. Gecas found refuge, not in the jungles of South America, but in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Which brings me to the latest lecture on a “culture of vengeance” to emanate from the UK. This time, the target isn’t the children of “the vengeful G-d of Israel”, but the United States Senate who have had the audacity to want some answers as to why a Libyan mass murderer of 270 innocents blown from the skies over Lockerbie, Scotland was released last year to return home to a heroes welcome in Tripoli and who has yet to succumb to the cancer that was imminently threatening his demise.
The stern lecture was delivered by Cardinal Keith O’Brien who accused the American justice system of being based on ”vengeance and retribution” and said he was glad to live in a country where ”justice is tempered with mercy.”
I imagine that Nazi War criminal Gecas, would be in full agreement with the Cardinal’s assertion that ”In Scotland over many years we have cultivated through our justice system what I hope can be described as a ‘culture of compassion’.
“On the other hand,” he added, “there still exists in many parts of the US, if not nationally, an attitude towards the concept of justice which can only be described as a ‘culture of vengeance’,” O’Brien said. The religious leader compared the U.S. to Iran and Saudi Arabia because some states still use the death penalty and urged US Senators wanting to question Scottish and British government ministers to instead ”direct their gaze inwards.”
The Cardinal concluded: ”I believe that only God can forgive and show ultimate compassion to those who commit terrible crimes and I would rather live in a country where justice is tempered by mercy than exist in one where vengeance and retribution are the norm.”
Rather than personally respond, this “vengeful” Jew from the Simon Wiesenthal Center respectfully recalls the reaction of Christian leaders to Scotland’s decision to release Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi. Archbishop Timothy Dolan, the leader of New York’s 2 million Catholics, said it was “a sad and perplexing mistake.”
“While as a follower of Jesus Christ I believe in mercy, I also believe that mercy must always be tempered with justice,” the Archbishop said in a statement. ” Mercy can be demonstrated in ways other than by releasing a man responsible for so much pain, suffering, and death. Those who lost loved ones also deserve mercy and justice. Finally we must consider that the release of this man could encourage others to engage in similar acts of terrorism in the future which would be a tragic result.”
The leader of New York’s Episcopal Diocese also condemned his release: “It seems to me to be a truly terrible misunderstanding of what compassion is,” said Bishop Mark Sisk. “It truly undercut the sensibilities of those who are the survivors. And in that sense, it is, I think horrific.”
“‘I have great difficulty with this decision,” the Bishop added. “‘This is a man that according to the courts was found guilty of masterminding a horrendous crime. He was given a life sentence with a minimum of 27 years. He should have had to abide by that sentence and to abridge that does not seems to have been a just thing to have done.’”
As we Jews enter the 40 day period of reflection and repentance leading up to Yom Kippur, perhaps it would appropriate for Jew, Gentile, and atheist alike to ponder the universal truth of this ancient Jewish Medrash: “He who is merciful to the cruel will become cruel to the merciful.”
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.