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Bin Laden and the Lessons of Nuremberg

by Marvin Hier

It is clear from President Bush's new executive order authorizing the establishment of military tribunals to try foreigners accused of terrorism, that the United States would prefer dealing with Bin Laden and his al-Qaida network in Afghanistan or Pakistan rather than in America. What is even clearer, is Washington's preference for killing him rather than bringing him to trial.

That is certainly understandable given that capturing him would put more American lives at risk and subject our cities to possible new terrorist attacks. It seems to me that even if we could capture him, many in Washington would prefer him dead rather than ratchet up his past on how he became the world's most successful terrorist. But this has received scant attention.

Rather the issue of military tribunals has become the central focus. Some in Congress criticize it as a kangaroo court while others defend it as the only way to prevent thousands of suspected al-Qaida terrorists from clogging our judicial system.

What seems to be lost is the fact that neither U.S. Intelligence nor any other foreign intelligence agency has been able to penetrate the closely-knit al-Qaida network. Bin Laden's organization has structured itself in a manner where each cell is compartmentalized preventing any low-level operatives from having a total knowledge of the organization. This begs the question: If Bin Laden and all the senior members of al-Qaida are killed, what about the secrets that will die with them? Don't we want to know who funded him, and which Arab governments looked the other way or directly assisted him? What was his relationship with Saddam Hussein or with members of the Saudi Royal family?

Even if Osama didn't talk, perhaps one of his senior associates would, as is often the case in Mafia trials. Of course the risks are greater by putting him on trial. We may turn him into a martyr and encourage even more attacks by his supporters. But by not knowing the full truth, we run comparable risks from unknown cells we may never have known about.

Fifty-six years ago, as Nazi Germany was on the verge of collapse, we faced a similar dilemma. Then, the United States and England opted for trying to capture as many top Nazis alive as possible in keeping with the 1942 Inter-Allied Declaration to place amongst their principal war aims, "punishment through the channel of organized justice of those guilty and responsible for these crimes." A year later, the 1943 Moscow Declaration added: "...those German officers and members of the Nazi Party that had been responsible for having taken a consenting part in atrocities and crimes, will be sent back to the countries in which their abominable deeds were done in order that they may be judged and punished..." The Allies obviously felt that those responsible for the murder of millions of innocent people should be put on trial for all the world to see. They believed that there was a lot about Nazism that only a public trial could discover, and they were right. History is always best served when the full truth is recorded.

Indeed, the trials that followed at Nuremberg gave the civilized world an unforgettable and chilling look at the most evil and sinister government in all of human history. Our knowledge of that period would have been greatly diminished had these trials never taken place. As Justice Robert Jackson, Chief Counsel for the United States remarked on November 25, 1945, "What makes this inquest significant is that these prisoners represent sinister influences that will lurk in the world long after their bodies have turned to dust. They are living symbols of racial hatred, of terrorism and violence, and of the arrogance and cruelty of power..." Those sinister influences that Justice Jackson spoke about can best be destroyed when they are exposed.

Granted, there are differences between the Nazis and the al-Qaida network. When the Nazis surrendered, the war was over and the threat they posed to civilization ended abruptly. But, as we all know, the threat of international terrorism will not end with Osama Bin Laden's death. Nonetheless, the questions will linger about his connections with other Middle East terrorist organizations and even what possible role the CIA played in his growth. No one but Osama Bin Laden or the senior members of al-Qaida can answer those questions and as the old adage goes, "Dead Men Don't Talk."

Rabbi Marvin Hier is the Dean and Founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Museum of Tolerance.

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