The allegation that a man in northeast Minneapolis was a murdering Nazi has received national attention. It has also polarized the public’s response.
The case is “perfect” for doing so. Michael Karkoc is 94 and obviously no longer a threat. Thus, many are saying: “Leave him alone.” But those demanding that he stand trial feel secure in their principled stance.
According to the records and testimony, he was a Nazi soldier who may have had a hand in the murdering of many civilians. To them, his age is as arbitrary a factor no different than if he was rich, poor, female, young, short, tall. There’s no magic age where you no longer have to face justice, so whether he’s 94, 72, 22, or 122, he needs to do so for what he allegedly did.
Perhaps those who maintain this principled stance on justice look to those who say “leave him alone” as lacking principle, as going soft, as losing their sense of justice because they lack conviction. But the question I have for those who wish to have him stand trial is: what is your definition of justice?
Karkoc’s exaggerated age provides a peripheral look at popular notions of justice.
No one has a problem with trial and imprisonment of a man who willfully kills someone, is caught shortly thereafter, then is found to be guilty. People support this activity for two reasons: They want to see him pay, and they want to see a dangerous person incapacitated.
How much is about protection, how much is justice and how much is revenge is difficult to parse out. But when the perpetrator is 94, is 70 years removed from his crime and has been an asset to his community, some motives are eliminated. If seeing him go to trial is not about protection, then remaining are justice and revenge.
Most people understand these two concepts as different — as do I. But whereas most might think revenge is doing to this man what he did to others, and justice is having him stand trial and face possible incarceration, I see both of these as simply different branches of the same tree. We say “face justice” rather than “suffer revenge,” but in either case the idea is to see the guilty pay for what he did. One is just done in a more formal, humane setting.
This isn’t to say there aren’t good reasons why someone would want to see this man suffer assuming he’s guilty. And often tossed at the “leave him alone” crowd is the retort:
“What if it was your family who was killed?”
I’ll answer by saying, “I don’t know.” I might very well want to string the perpetrator up by his ankles and light him on fire. But I don’t think blood thirst (or any urge to see a person suffer) appeasement should be the ideal of our justice system.
If you do, then let’s start by calling it what it is: not a “justice system,” but a “revenge system.”
To me, justice and revenge are completely different. Whereas common usage of the word “justice” is a veil for revenge, I believe the term means to make amends. If you steal, you give back. If you hurt someone, you pay for their medical care. If you vandalize, you clean it up.
Obviously one can’t undo murder, but that’s no logical reason to hurt them back. And why limit what one can do by throwing them in jail. (That is, of course, if they’re not a threat.) Putting a nonthreatening person in jail, then, only serves to tear apart relationships, taking a productive person out of society and costing taxpayers more money — a high price, indeed, just to see them pay.
I know in my idea of justice there will be myriad instances where it’s difficult to know whether someone is a threat or not, so difficult to ascertain whether they should be locked up.
But a 94-year-old man?
Assuming he’s guilty — which for many has already been determined — people want to see this man suffer because, if he doesn’t, to them it means the victims aren’t being recognized, that they aren’t important enough to warrant avenging their demise. But is someone’s worth determined by how much we punish their perpetrator? It’s a common barometer humans have used, but I think it’s erroneous.
In our quest to honor victims of injustice, we veil the justice system as an avenge vehicle. Someone — guilty or not — has to pay, or there isn’t a sense of completeness, of wholeness, of “justice.” Undoubtedly countless innocents have been sentenced to all sorts of punishment because of this strong urge.
And lastly, these kinds of cases, whether dealing with Nazis or in the Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman case, are even more loaded because they exemplify situations where the alleged aren’t looked at as individuals, but as symbols of the enemy.
By being associated with racism in America and the Holocaust, these two defendants are guilty before trial. If Zimmerman and Michael Karkoc stand trial, and either are found not guilty — despite the case and evidence — it will be a loss to those who attach their victims (and their own worth) to the pain we inflict on the enemy associated with these two men.
Regarding Karkoc, think about what needs to be done if your idea of justice is to see him stand trial. Police will need to escort an old man to a squad car. America will fly him to Europe, and his trial will require the work of hundreds of people and thousands of hours. All the while you’ll hope that he doesn’t pass away, so you can see justice prevail. And if age isn’t a factor, what about health? What if he were senile or unconscious? Would your need for his possible punishment still require a trial?
That’s not justice. It’s a disruption to his family and community and a huge expenditure because we think his punishment provides validation to the deceased and he, as an alleged former Nazi, is the embodiment of evil. And unprincipled or not, this is something the people saying “leave him alone” intuitively understand.
He may have once been a monster, but he’s not anymore. So leave him alone.
Brandon Ferdig lives in Minneapolis and writes at ThePeriphery.com. His book “Reaching New Heights in China: Experiences, Interactions, and Social Observations While Living in The Middle Kingdom” comes out this fall. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter: @brandonferdig.