The Need to Punish

Just a little while ago I finished watching the movie Narvik. Highly recommend. Five stars. It is a dramatization of the German attack on the Norwegian town of Narvik in 1940 – the Germans invading Norway primary to gain control of Narvik because, during winter, that was the port where a huge portion of Germany’s iron ore came from. Lose that port, lose the war: that was the point for the Germans. It is a Norwegian movie so it is in subtitles for the most part, but it is well done so that you hardly notice that you’re reading the dialogue.

While a war movie, it isn’t centered on war, as such. Certainly there are battle scenes but the story is really about what do you do? Who is right? Who is wrong? What is moral? What is immoral? Collaboration or resistance? Fight on when its hopeless or just quit? The Germans, naturally, are the bad guys – mostly because they really were. But the British are not portrayed very favorably either. Neither are the neutral Swedes. The French (who really did come to fight for Narvik) are given a dose of glory. As I said, definitely recommend. But aside from offering you a couple hours of interesting and moving entertainment, there was something that struck me in the movie.

There is this scene where Gunnar – a young, Norwegian soldier; he, his young wife and child are central elements of the story – finally gets really into the fight and is able to pay out the Germans in their own coin. He shoots two Germans manning a machine gun nest. As he’s turns to leave, he notices that one of them has started moving. He quickly goes over to the man and turns him over: he’s just a kid (like Gunnar) but he’s also no threat: he’s dying and the lad’s dying eyes plead with Gunnar, “help me!”. But all Gunnar does is shove him a bit and, as the kid dies, ask “why are you here?”. No answer is provided: and for Gunnar and his dead enemy, no answer is ever going to really be provided.

The scene bore in on me the crime that is war. Don’t get me wrong: if you’re fighting to defend yourself, you commit no crime – but to start a war is a crime. There is never a justification to start shooting, or set up a situation where the other side feels it must start shooting or die. That player in the movie dying at his post represents millions – and even though, in this case, it was a young German, we do feel the sadness; the loss. The pointless waste of a life. But as we really consider it, we must never forget that it was a crime – and the attacker from the youngest little soldier in the ranks to the top military and political leaders are guilty.

Therefore, you are without excuse, every one of you who passes judgment. For by the standard by which you judge another you condemn yourself, since you, the judge, do the very same things. – Romans 2:1

Any 18 year old Fritz in the German army, if asked, would say that it would be wrong if a foreign army suddenly descended on his home town and started confiscating, ordering about, oppressing and such. And so, the Germans who landed at Narvik knew they weren’t supposed to do that. No citizen of Narvik or Norway had in any way offended any German in the least. You have no excuse. You may obtain forgiveness, but you have no excuse.

And that thought, in turn, brought me to think about our larger crisis, domestic and foreign. The way the world is really in bad shape. And it occurred to me this is because, after more than a century of incredible evil done by nations and ideologies, nobody was ever sufficiently punished for their transgressions. Justice must always be tempered by mercy, but it still must be justice. Because we must apply mercy, after WWII we wouldn’t line the Germans up and shove them into gas chambers…but hanging a few Nazi leaders hardly atoned for the crime. And this leaves aside the fact that nothing was done about the Soviets, who were only marginally less bad than the Germans.

It is said – and generally accepted – that after WWI the punishment of the Germans was too harsh. The reality is that it was too light. Remember: they attacked France, Belgium and Luxembourg without the slightest provocation. And this led to four years of miserable, slogging warfare where untold numbers of young men died when, with just an ounce of decency on the part of the Germans, they would have lived. All the Germans had to do to save the lives of millions was…not attack people who offered no offense in any way. Quite honestly, for a century after that, the Germans should have been de-jure shackled to plows to pay back those they attacked. And WWII was even worse…and all we did was hang a few Nazis and then let the Germans get rich building cars and then we sat there, slack jawed, as they complained about what we did during the war. And, remember: no excuse. Any German asked in 1939 would have answered “no” to the question “should Nation X attack Germany unprovoked?”. They knew what they were doing was wrong. And they gloried in it…and only rejected it when it was all over. Germans want to complain about Dresden? They should feel lucky that every city and town in Germany wasn’t razed to the ground.

And I do think that this unwillingness to punish on the larger scale has led to our unwillingness on the lower scale. We’re forever finding excuses. Letting the guilty off. Figuring out how we can turn a blind eye to it. Easier that way, don’t you know? To punish is to take responsibility…and to assert a standard that you, too, must he held to. It is almost as if by letting Nazis and Communists off we then gave ourselves permission to bomb mud huts in Vietnam and drone wedding parties in Yemen. That if we let the mugger and armed robber off in our streets, we can then excuse the politician taking bribes. That if we all smear a bit of sh** all over ourselves, none of us will notice we stink.

It is high time that we got ourselves cleaned up. That we start to punish the guilty. Yes, yes, yes: always tempered with mercy. But mercy is to reduce the punishment either in scope or duration…but there must be punishment. The guilty must feel at least some of the pain they inflicted. And nobody has an excuse – the dictator plotting war and the punk plotting robbery already know they shouldn’t – and they know they shouldn’t because they know they wouldn’t want themselves to be the victim of an unprovoked attack or a robbery. When we think of all those who have been victimized by war and crime over the past century because our failure to punish encouraged the next war or crime, then really no amount of harshness meted out to the guilty is excessive. If the Germans in 1939 had been shackled and working merely to feed themselves and pay back those they attacked, then there would have been no WWII. In Europe, 60 million people would not have died. Try to sell me that brutally humiliating the Germans for, say, 50 years after WWI would have been worse than WWII. And how many in our cities have been robbed, raped and murdered by people who had previously robbed, raped or murdered? You tell me that punishment doesn’t deter crime? Maybe – but I know what a guy breaking rocks in the hot sun for 10 years won’t do for 10 years: rob. That’s at least some people not robbed; and that makes the punishment of the robber just and merciful. And as merciful to the robber as to any potential future victims – by punishing, we are at least for a time preventing the miscreant from sinning, and that’s a good thing.