War Crimes and Punishment
What constitutes due process for terrorists?

Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill in Tehran in 1943


Clifford D. May

‘To the justice of the firing squad!”

That was the toast proposed by Stalin to Roosevelt and Churchill over dinner in 1943 in Tehran. They were meeting for the first time, and the discussion had turned to the fate of Nazi leaders following Germany’s defeat. Stalin wanted no fewer than 50,000 of them executed. Churchill, much as he despised Nazis, considered mass summary executions dishonorable. Roosevelt, “in an apparent attempt to lighten the conversation, suggested perhaps 49,000 would be adequate.”

William Shawcross recounts this exchange early in his new book, Justice and the Enemy: Nuremberg, 9/11, and the Trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. A distinguished journalist (a phrase I do not employ promiscuously), Shawcross brings a strong dose of common sense to the fevered debate over what constitutes due process and proper treatment for those now waging an unconventional war against the West. He also brings a unique pedigree: His father, Hartley Shawcross, was Britain’s lead prosecutor at the military tribunal that became known as the Nuremberg Trials.

In hindsight, it’s easy to imagine that Nuremberg was the inevitable culmination of World War II. But as Hartley Shawcross understood and William Shawcross makes clear, “there was absolutely no precedent.” George Orwell was among those who believed it was a bad idea. He predicted such “cruel pageantry of the law” would focus “a romantic light on the accused.”

Chief prosecutor (and U.S. Supreme Court justice) Robert Jackson saw things differently: “We must make it clear to the Germans that the wrong for which their fallen leaders are on trial is not that they lost the War, but that they started it.” Nazis would be charged also with “crimes against humanity,” a completely new legal concept that “encompassed the persecution of racial and religious groups.”

What has all this to do with 9/11 and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, one of the terrorists currently incarcerated at Guantanamo? Shawcross explains:

At Nuremberg, our civilization designed a vehicle to anathematize men imbued with evil. But evil re-invents itself in every age. In the 1940s, the world confronted and, with immense sacrifice, defeated the horror of fascism. The scale and the nature of the threats are different today but the ideology of Al Qaeda and its Islamist associates shares attributes with Nazism; it, too, is totalitarian, and it, too, has anti-Semitism at its core. In the case of Al Qaeda that intransigent hatred is extended to all “infidels.” Just as Hitler planned a “thousand year Reich,” so the Islamists call for a global caliphate in which they and their laws prevail absolutely and endlessly.

There is this difference between then and now: At Nuremberg we were dealing with an enemy that had been defeated and an ideology that had been discredited. Today, by contrast, our enemies continue to fight, and Islamic supremacism is far from vanquished. Islamists of various stripes are well funded — the West’s addiction to oil guarantees that — and prominent in international organizations. What’s more, Iran’s theocrats — for years the world’s main sponsors of terrorism — may soon possess nuclear weapons. The West’s response has been inconsistent and confused.

Among the events Shawcross explores: In 1949, three years after the judgment at Nuremberg, the Geneva Conventions were “renegotiated and redefined.” The intent was to protect not only uniformed soldiers but also civilians by making clear that honorable combatants are prohibited from disguising themselves as civilians or using civilians as shields.