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Amnesty for War Crimes -- even Healthcare Worker War Crimes?

Posted Aug 25 2008 3:17pm
Timothy Murphy of UIC graciously agreed to kick off the discussion in the new year with a provocative post:

Physicist Freeman Dyson has an interesting essay in the current New York Review of Books . In discussing a biography of Wernher von Braun, Dyson says pretty plainly that he considers his own work for the Royal Air Force as collaboration with the people who planned the destruction of Dresden in early 1945. He has called that bombing “a notorious calamity in which many thousands of innocent civilians were burned to death. If we had lost the war, those responsible might have been condemned as war criminals, and I might have been found guilty of collaborating with them.”

Dyson goes on to say: “War is an inherently immoral activity. Even the best of wars involves crimes and atrocities, and every citizen who takes part in war is to some extent collaborating with criminals.” And yet Dyson does not widen the scope of responsibility because he wants to make it possible to bring more ‘collaborators’ to trial. On the contrary, he believes that this widened sense of responsibility for war shows the need for amnesty, not prosecution.

“Without reconciliation there can be no real peace,” he goes on to say. “Reconciliation means amnesty. It is allowable to execute the worst war criminals, with or without a legal trial, provided that this is done quickly, while the passions of war are still raging. After the executions

are done, there should be no more hunting for criminals and collaborators. In order to make a lasting peace, we must learn to live with our enemies and forgive their crimes. Amnesty means that we are all equal before the law. Amnesty is not easy and not fair, but it is a moral necessity,

because the alternative is an unending cycle of hatred and revenge.”

I thought this would interesting because of what this suggests about prosecutions and/or amnesty for healthcare workers who commit offenses during hostilities or who otherwise enable armed conflict. I have lots of reactions to the ideas here, but I will share just one: I am skeptical that opening the door to executions without trials seems to me a terrible mistake. There ought to be trials. Let's refer to the Nazi doctors' trial, for example. Not all were convicted. Not all the convicted were hanged. Whatever else they do, trials introduce a measure of proportion. Maybe you think that more should have been convicted and more hanged, but executions without trials seems to me to open the door to more mistakes, more unmeasured vengeance, more indulgence.
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