John Yoo — a scholar and a war criminalSaturday, January 31st, 2009
Boohoo, boohoo, boohoo, boohoo
I shed a tear for poor John Yoo.
A little torture he thought was fine,
So now he may have to do hard time.
He stretched the law that much we know,
Gave the rule of law an awful blow.
He had to know that his words were wrong,
So will he soon sing a jailhouse song?
No, John Yoo probably won’t end up in jail – although as Glenn Greenwald, Scott Horton and others have noted, he should.
I rarely hear Yoo’s name — scholar, professor, torture enabler — without thinking of the movie Judgment at Nuremberg. The famous film featured Spencer Tracy, of course, playing Dan Haywood, an aging judge who was sitting in judgment of Ernst Janning, a patriarch of the German legal system. Janning, a great legal scholar and fundamentally decent man, had tragically sold his soul to the Nazis after they came to power.
At the climax of the movie, the two men exchanged these words:
Ernst Janning: Judge Haywood… the reason I asked you to come: Those people, those millions of people… I never knew it would come to that. You must believe it. You must believe it!
Judge Dan Haywood: Herr Janning, it came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.
Obviously, as bad as the Bush Administration’s crimes were, they came nowhere close to equaling those of Nazi Germany: nothing here is intended to suggest they were. But, even with that given, the similarities between Yoo’s story and that of the movie’s Ernst Janning are striking. Both feature successful legal scholars who sold their talents (and souls) to the guys in charge, while in the process violating the most basic precepts of their profession, not to mention of human decency.
Yoo’s crime was in writing legal memorandums that provided cover for torture later carried out by the Bush Administration in the name of the United States. Like Ernst Janning’s wrongful court judgments at issue in the movie, Yoo’s torture memos, on their face, probably had the appearance of proper legal process. But they were a fraud. That waterboarding is torture has been settled for decades. The United States has punished people from other countries severely for using it against our people. Anyone with legal training, especially someone who claims to have taken the time to research the point, who would say otherwise, is a liar — and worse still an enabler of evil.
The fictional Ernst Janning showed signs of deep remorse and shame during the movie. The very real John Yoo, on the other hand — not so much so. His recent Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, in which he criticized Barack Obama for prohibiting torture, is a veritable testament to his continued defiance of well settled norms of human decency.
Perhaps being put on trial would give Yoo the opportunity for introspection, but, again, most likely that will never happen. And viewed from the standpoint of political logic, forgoing torture prosecutions may make sense. But I’m reminded of something else the Judge Haywood character said near the end of Judgment at Nuremberg. It was immediately after Ernst Janning’s lawyer predicted that all of the defendants Haywood (and the other judges) had sentenced to life imprisonment would be free men in five years that he responded:
“Herr Rolfe, I have admired your work in the court for many months. You are particularly brilliant in your use of logic so, what you suggest may very well happen. It is logical, in view of the times in which we live. But to be logical is not to be right, and nothing on God’s earth could ever make it right!”