It happened today - May 31, 2015

Adolf EichmannOn May 31, 1962, the Israeli government hanged Adolf Eichmann. Which I’ve always found very revealing.

You see, Israel does not have the death penalty. It was renounced there as part of a profound moral commitment to the sanctity of life born of the experience of the Holocaust. Though I support capital punishment myself I respect that decision. But once in a while, even they saw, someone just needs killing, not for deterrence or safety but as a matter of justice so fundamental everybody knows it.

Eichmann was an incredibly sinister character, the very embodiment of Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil”; hence her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. A petty, rule-bound, rigid, cold, small-minded genocidal maniac, he looked and acted like the boring colorless forgettable relative you’d avoid at a family gathering lest be bore you to tears describing his minor functionary job, even while directing the death of millions of innocents.

Peter Z. Malkin and Harry Stein’s gripping Eichmann In My Hands, about the successful Mossad mission to capture Eichmann in Argentina, includes the telling detail that as a prisoner he not only asked his captors for permission to go to the toilet but, once seated on it, asked again for permission to defecate. And yet he turned his obsession with detail and routine to the task of organizing the extermination the Jews of occupied Europe on behalf of Hitler with horrifying efficiency.

Having captured him, given him the first televised trial in history, convicted him despite his claim that he was just following orders, and hanged him, the Israelis burned his body and dumped the ashes in the Mediterranean so there’d be no chance of their becoming a neo-Nazi shrine. Mind you, if you spit in the Mediterranean you might hit a few of his charred molecules. It’s worth a try.

I thoroughly approve of the decision about the ashes. But the main thing is the hanging. Israel, being a society devoted to the rule of law, brought in the death penalty just long enough to kill Eichmann, then abolished it again. And while I think there’s plenty of room to debate how often it should be used, what sort of procedural safeguards you need and what crimes should carry that penalty, I think the Eichmann case proves what the bottom line is.

Sometimes justice demands just one thing: “Get a rope.”