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Viewing Stanley Kramer’s and Abby Mann’s Judgment at Nuremberg, almost 40 years after the film was made and over 60 years since the proceedings on which it was based have passed, proved illuminating to me on a few levels. First, the film shows that an intelligent and nuanced discussion of the issues surrounding World War II were and still are possible, and second, that Spencer Tracy is perhaps the greatest film actor to have ever lived.

As for the first point, let’s turn for a moment to the recent fall from grace of Helen Thomas.  Helen Thomas, who served for many, many years as a celebrated journalist, is summarily judged and executed (to the extent we can do so today) for making remarks about Israel that are deemed, by conventional wisdom, to be disdainful at best and downright perverse at worse – bordering  it would seem on moral depravity.  Absent from the Helen Thomas media judgment, her subsequent apology and the universal assumption that she was completely off her rocker, was a nuanced discussion of her statements, and any analysis of those statements that would have contextualized them.  To get such a contextualization we need to turn away from ABC, CBS and CNN, and toward Judgment at Nuremberg.

As for Helen Thomas’ views, there are at least a few Orthodox Jews that actually voice the exact same opinion that Helen does regarding  how the “Jews should get the hell out of Palestine.” These Jews, apparently in the minority (I have not researched this) quite literally would support every iota of Helen Thomas’ viewpoint.   Now, since I myself have befriended, roomed with, worked for, and loved those of the Jewish faith and/or culture I don’t think I am a good candidate for either anti-Semitism nor an educated discussion on the veracity of Zionism.  However, I can say what I see – and what I see is that the mainstream media in utterly incapable of entering  into a rational, even-handed debate regarding the validity of the Jewish State’s position against Palestine, and the efficacy of the Jewish State as the solution to the issues surrounding World War II.

That said, such a debate was not the point of Judgment at Nuremberg, although the Helen Thomas incident underscores how World War II continues to be a pervasive event surrounding the American psyche, because the extension of that war exists with us to this day.  If any war could have been said not to have ended, it is that war.

What was the point – or points – of Judgment at Nuremberg?   Let me try to summarize them here.  First, that a level of personal responsibility lies with all people for the atrocities that are committed by their leaders.  Second, that this moral responsibility grows out of a fundamental understanding that all human beings are of value and are therefore due to be treated with equal justice based on the rule of law.  And third, that large crimes begin with small ones.

Burt Lancaster’s character Ernst Yanning asks Judge Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy) at the end of the film (I paraphrase): “You must believe me that I did not know that it would come to what it came to.”  As for Haywood, he replies: “After the first murder of the first innocent allowed, you knew what it would come to.”  Such words can be echoed today to any American, any person who allows atrocities to continue without speaking up.

In his closing remarks, Tracy’s Haywood stated quite eloquently that “every human being is of essential value.” Why was that important?  It was important because it is only in dehumanizing others that atrocities can occur in the name of the State.  This can happen today on many levels in many guises, and is a disease which humanity seems ill prepared to rid itself of, although there are those that continue to try to raise the rationality of humanism above fascism.

Finally, large crimes begin with small ones.  It is the first compromise that leads to the larger one that leads to the massive crime.  We can look to our recent financial failings for examples. Take Bernard Merdoff, or Enron, or shaky derivatives deals.  All begin with rationalizations, excuses, small crimes and cutting corners.  Eventually, the whole society is rotting and a culture of corruption, buttressed by a fundamental dehumanization of self and others, takes hold.

Who judges the judges?  That becomes a searing question for us, as Americans, today, posed by Judgment at Nuremberg, where American judges quite literally sat in judgment of their Nazi counterparts.  Where are those judges today?  Many that voted for Barack Obama had prayed and hoped for some kind of resolution to questions of Iraq, open questions regarding 9-11, and a real debate regarding the veracity of our financial system.  Questions that could be explored and debated in the light of day by a people’s tribunal of sorts, so perhaps we could begin the process of healing and transcending what we know are probably crimes against humanity, committed not by Nazis but by ourselves, who have become in essence the criminals, either directly or indirectly.

What occurs with the national psyche, just as with individual psyche, is this corruption, when not illuminated, when not brought to light and justice, festers and expresses itself in another way.  And what better a symbol of that expression than the current Oil Spill. The toxicity of our system is literally washing up on our shores.

Do we address the internal toxicity that leads to the external?  It seems not. For there are questions of country, questions of jobs, questions of money, questions of practicality, questions of ‘the survival of the country’ that arise to dissuade us when such a truth and reconciliation movement is desired by people. Arguments of ‘survival’ that were made by all of the men and women who compromised Germany at the time of the Nazis, who were themselves seen by most  as the only viable vehicle for national salvation.

Where is our truth and reconciliation committee?  Where is our Judgment at Nuremberg? While we are constantly told ‘not to forget’ the atrocities of World War II and 9-11, what of other atrocities that occurred yesterday?  What of dozens of innocents killed by un-manned drones in Afghanistan? What of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians killed for no reason in the last 10 years?  What of Rachel Corrie being bulldozed in Palestine?   What of the monks being tortured in Chinese-occupied Tibet?  We justifiably hold the emblem and horrible reality of the Jewish Holocaust as that which we will ‘not forget.’ And yet every day we are encouraged to forget other atrocities because they do not serve our interests.  But what of the human interest?  What of the interest of justice?

But we are in a new era. This new era has no Spencer Tracy, apparently – who himself, in reality, was just an actor, a myth of our own purity.  Myth or not, we have no wise old men, for they are corrupted, or corruptible.  We have no Sam Ervin, who led the Watergate  Committee.  What the powers that be do not understand is that we are destroying ourselves by not allowing ourselves that transparent self-criticism that we need with Iraq, with 9-11, with the financial system, and with other issues.  It is impossible for a rational human being to exist in this situation, knowing what they know, and not to demand justice on some fundamental level.  Without it we wither and we end up with the type of justice we provided Helen Thomas, who, like Spencer Tracy’s wisdom, is apparently an anachronism, and easily discarded as we move on to the next news cycle.  A news cycle that seems strangely to conspire against our awareness, even as its false sense of urgency touts its importance to us all.  What is lost is wisdom, the type of wisdom seen in Spencer Tracy’s Dan Haywood.

And yes, Spencer Tracy.  What is it about the man? He was, after all, just an actor. He was, apparently, a flawed man.  But there was a greatness about him, and certainly a greatness in his acting, an honesty, a transparency into the inside of the man, the weariness of the man, the burdens of the man.  It would do us all good to look at Judgment at Nuremberg again and again, to look into the craggy face of Spencer Tracy and recognize that if we can imagine such a man, such a wise man, that we as human beings, by the very force of that imagination, may be able to find ourselves out of the round of delusion and myth we seem so content to live with.  To imagine, indeed to find, some measure of justice  and enlightenment, in these days where such things seem so passé, so impossible, and yet, so needed.

We elected a Black Man hoping he would replace our lost Spencer Tracy.  Certainly he is up to the task. However, it also seems to me that he, our President, is not listening to what people crave.  He is not seeing what we need as a nation.  We need truth. We do not need to kick more ass regarding an issue which is tangential to the real issue: that we are lying to ourselves, and getting rather used to it.

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