The writer Joseph Conrad once observed that "the belief in a supernatural source of evil is unnecessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness." This certainly rings true with respect to perpetrators and enablers of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.
This week Canadian and international media reported on new evidence against an alleged Nazi war criminal living in Ormstown, Quebec, only a short one-hour drive from Montreal. German historian Pers Rudling charges in newly declassified Soviet documents that Volodymyr Katriuk was part of a Nazi-led battalion that machine-gunned innocent villagers in Belarus in 1943. Katriuk had already had his citizenship revoked but reinstated when the appeal court ruled there was no evidence that he had actually participated in the shootings.
Hopefully the judicial system will this time do the right thing before Katriuk, now in his 90s, succumbs to natural causes.
As important, some of the reaction to this story is deeply troubling. There remain those who believe that given the age of the perpetrators and that the murderous brutalities occurred more than 65 years ago, we best just move on.
Really? Should we forget that according to Professor Rudling's newly found evidence the villagers of Khatyn were forced into a barn that was subsequently set on fire? Should we ignore information in the new testimony that reads "One witness stated that Volodymyr Katriuk was a particularly active participant in the atrocity: he reportedly lay behind the stationary machine gun, firing rounds on anyone attempting to escape the flames"?
Should we move on from the fact that Schutzmann Knapp, another witness and participant in the slaughter claimed, "I saw... how Katriuk and Meleshko [another battalion murderer] were shooting the people lying on the road."
In modern times, no one singular act by a nation-state has captured the nightmares of civilization more than the Holocaust. The act, therefore, of bringing the enablers of this horrific genocide to justice as long as one walks this earth is vital.
The hunting down of war criminals sends a universal message that such unspeakable crimes will not be tolerated by a civil society. It tells potential perpetrators that there is no place to hide; that they will be hunted for the rest of their lives.
Indeed were we not to have continued in our efforts against Nazi murderers would there have been any ethical justification for bringing brutes like former Liberian leader Charles Taylor to justice? Without fidelity to justice no matter how much time has elapsed could we justify the current manhunt for Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony who ruined the lives of thousands of children by kidnapping them as child-soldiers?
The fact that the perpetrators and enablers of the Nazi genocide may today be elderly can be no reason to shirk our duty to the victims. We ought not see them as they are today, but should remember them for the thugs and murderers they were 60 years ago. To allow their crimes to go unpunished would give Nazism a posthumous victory and send a message of hope to the genocidaires of tomorrow.
At this time in human history we still face the specter of genocidal crime and mass murder. At a time when modern day war criminals look for sanctuary far from where they committed their crimes, we must not waver; doing so sends a message that if you can escape justice for 65 years, mass murder is of no relevance.
For the sake of the victims, we must demand continued justice with no get-out-of-jail-free card simply because you reached old age. It is no exaggeration to say that we must all be the protectors of our society and its values. We rely on our government to act on our behalf. As a society we must ensure commitment to law because we understand that evil is possible but justice is achievable and in the end, we are all responsible.
We have a solemn obligation to the victims and the survivors alike to hold the wicked accountable for their heinous crimes and to effect some measure of justice for what they have done.
There is nothing supernatural about that.