In Stanley Kramer’s 1961 movie, Judgment at Nuremberg, four German judges who served on the bench during the Nazi regime face a military tribunal to answer charges of crimes against humanity. The film depicts a fictionalized version of the Judges’ Trial of 1947, one of the twelve U.S. military tribunals during the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials. The Judges’ Trial focused on certain judges who served before and during the Nazi regime in Germany and who either passively, actively, or in a combination of both, embraced and enforced laws that led to judicial acts of sexual sterilization and to the imprisonment and execution of people for their religions, racial or ethnic identities, political beliefs and physical handicaps or disabilities. The film is notable for its use of courtroom drama to illuminate individual perfidy and moral compromise in times of violent political upheaval.
German defense attorney Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell) argues that the German judges (indeed, the German people) as defendants were not the only ones to aid, or at least turn a blind eye to, the Nazi regime. Rolfe eloquently argues the side of the Germans who claimed innocence of the Nazi crimes out of ignorance and national expediency, it emerges as a double-edged issue when those who are to administer justice in the criminal system are concerned; they are urged to compromise their own moral principles and shirk responsibility. This issue, deceptively simple in basic moral terms but highly involved and perplexing when set against hard realities, is the question of how much responsibility and guilt the individual must bear for crimes committed or condoned by him on the order and in the interest of the state.
So I ask you: can a corrupt law be administered fairly? Or does it corrupt absolutely? Does a corrupt law destroy all who the law touches be it cop, prosecutor, defense attorney, judge and even defendant?
In 1994 journalist Dan Baum interviewed John Ehrlichman, President Nixon’s domestic-policy adviser from 1969 to 1973. Ehrlichman was a Watergate co-conspirator who spent a year and a half in prison. By 1994 he was working in Atlanta. In the interview, Ehrlichman blatantly admitted that the war on (some) drugs was designed to crush Nixon’s perceived enemies.
“How did the United States entangle itself in a policy of drug prohibition that has yielded so much misery and so few good results?” Baum wrote in the Harper’s piece, “Legalize It All — How to Win the War on Drugs.”:
“You want to know what this was really all about?” [Ehrlichman] asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
That drugs have been used as a tactic to marginalize and imprison peoples who are inconvenient, so to speak, for conservatives and neo-cons doesn’t really come as a surprise—and not just because Nixon was a noted racist. The War on Drugs was a Nixon invention but, as Baum explains, it’s been useful for every president thereafter, and its function as a suppressive tool didn’t exactly wane—recall the way it defined Reagan’s crack era, which was funneled into black neighborhoods by the CIA and then used to decimate an entire generation. Or the way relatively minor drug offenses are the main contributor to the current mass incarceration crisis, which disproportionately affects young black and brown men.
So what will you do now? Hope for Hans Rolfe to defend you? Or reject an immoral law?