Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Grey Papon

Some bad people manage to hide their past and resurface as important figures someplace else where people haven’t bothered to check their history. A convicted felon may reappear as a respected violin dealer (there have been several), a musician moves to a new city and boasts about his/her former employment, without mentioning that he/she in fact had to leave. In business and politics, some people seem to be able to commit terrible deeds, and after a disgraceful exit, they pop up in charge of another leadership position, either with the government or private sector.

Last week brought news of the death of one successful and powerful con man, Maurice Papon. He had held a senior position in the Vichy regime, arresting and sending 1,560 Jews to Darcy interment camp, near Paris. From there these victims were transported to Auschwitz and other concentration camps and thus to death. After the war Papon managed to hide his past so well that French presidents, including Charles de Gaulle and Valery Giscard D’Estaing, named him into important positions, including the police chief of Paris and the budget minister. He was awarded the Order of Commander of the Legion of Honor medal by de Gaulle, and was even in charge of the company that built the supersonic Corcorde. It wasn’t until 1980s when evidence about his Nazi collaboration past came to light. Finally in 1997 he was convicted for his war crimes after a six-month trial, the longest in France’s history, and sentenced to ten years in prison. However, he was released on medical grounds in 2002, having served only three years. This angered many who felt that he shouldn’t have been freed. The head of the Union of Jewish students said that “Papon could die quietly - that was not the case for all those he sent to their deaths”

Papon’s defense argument throughout his trial was that he was only following orders, the same excuse we have heard over and over again. Adolf Eichmann was also proud of this and showed no remorse for what he had done. Even when it became obvious that Germany was rapidly losing the war and Heinrich Himmler ordered to stop the ‘Final Solution’ of exterminating the Jewish population of Europe and to destroy all the documents relating to this, Eichmann did not obey and continued his deadly work in Hungary. With luck and help, from among others some members of the Roman Catholic Church, he was able to avoid capture and eventually immigrate to Argentina. Israeli agents kidnapped him there in 1960 and brought him back to Israel. The trial in Jerusalem was broadcast live and the accused was found guilty on all counts and hanged in 1962, the only time Israel has used the death penalty in a civil case.

This excuse to kill and destroy due to orders given by superiors happens all the time. Some people end up in law enforcement or the military field because of their burning desire to wear a gun and use it. Often the question for such people is which side of the law they should be on. Crime usually pays far better, but there is always the risk of getting caught. Working on the ‘good’ side means less money but being able to legally take aim at a human target under the right circumstances. There are policemen and soldiers who unfortunately don’t think twice before shooting innocent and unarmed people. This is time of war, or war on terror, and human lives are not particularly valuable. But destroying lives can also happen in different ways: a foreman or a middle ranking executive can fire people, or stop hiring them in case of a temporary setup, knowing in many cases that they are endangering a person’s ability to earn a living. Yet these people with this power seem to have no conscience, and they seldom question if executing the orders of their own superiors is the right thing to do. What goes on in a soldier’s head, or a policeman’s, when they empty their gun on a woman, child, old man or just an unarmed civilian posing no threat to them or anyone else? Is that going to haunt him later in life, or is he a true sociopath with no conscience? What about a modern-day ‘Ronald Eichmann’ in the civilian sector, knowing that he has done something terribly wrong? Is he also without a conscience or will he wake up one night feeling pain and remorse for what he did?

We all remember the commercials for
Grey Poupon. What does that have to do with the also grey 96-year-old Monsieur Papon or a Nazi official? Well, one was about mustard and the other, among other horrors, mustard gas, effects of which they experimented on their helpless victims. The subject brings me to the fact that I know people, especially in the music field who, in spite of the image portrayed in the media, simply can’t cut the mustard.