How could this be? Under our noses, social media and all, we now have photographs of a genocide. Are those mass graves full of innocent civilians, people whose only crime was that they were in the way of a madman and his army?
What do you call that, if not a crime?
Of course Russian President Vladimir Putin should be put on trial for war crimes, even if that trial takes place in absentia. It is not an oxymoron. There are rules, even in war, and it is important that they be enforced, even if only symbolically.
But Putin will never subject himself to such a thing, and unless someone can kidnap him on the streets and bring him to justice (which is what happened to SS leader Adolf Eichmann in Argentina), he is likely to escape anything approaching justice for his crimes.
But it still matters that they be recognized, that he be publicly rebuked, that the world stand against not only the madman but the Russian soldiers who committed these atrocities.
What the hell were they doing?
What difference does it make if they were following orders?
Who pulled the trigger on women and children, not on soldiers but on civilians?
What happens to men in war?
There are so many terrifying things about the pictures coming out of Ukraine. The horror stories. The lives being led even by those who survive.
But it is the utter lack of humanity, the descent into God knows what hell, that strikes to the core of my being.
One of the primary missions of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is to take on the whole notion of following orders that violate the most basic norms of humanity. Over the years, the museum has hosted countless senior military and police officials for whom those lessons matter, or could. But how do you host the Russian army?
It is easy to blame one man for all of it, and Putin surely deserves every bit of blame we can heap on him. But even if he personally gave orders to shoot everyone in sight, those orders had to be followed down the line. Or not followed.
Those are the decisions soldiers must make in war, and they, too, are guilty if in following orders, they defy international law.
My students used to laugh when I talked of international law, as if there were such a thing. And they were right, to an extent, as Russia’s invasion so painfully proves. Of course it is “illegal” to invade another nation that poses no threat to your security.
But so, what? It’s not as if we actually stopped him, or tried — and no police officer is going to be knocking on his door to serve a warrant.
He did what he did; the rest of the world did what we did; and countless innocent people died because of the brutality of the Russian army.
That’s what happened, and the law had precious little to do with any of it.
Even so. It matters that we stand up and say that Putin is a criminal. It matters even more, I think, that we stand up and say that those who followed his orders are as guilty as he is, that we remind ourselves again that the power of a despot depends on those who follow him — or don’t.
Putin has done his best to hide the truth from his own people in order to command their loyalty. But in this world, it is only possible to hide so much.
It is important to get to the bottom of what has happened in Ukraine, to find the facts, to prosecute where we can, to get to the truth, not only for our sake but for the sake of the Russian people who must look in the mirror and take responsibility as well.
— Susan Estrich is a best-selling author, the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.