The Crime of Complicity

Ankerwycke  2017


The thesis of this controversial book asks the following question: “if you witness a crime, are you legally obligated to intervene?”

Amos Guiora, a professor of law at the University of Utah as well as a retired lieutenant colonel in the Israel Defense Forces, argues that laws must be passed to make bystanders responsible for taking action to prevent potential crimes. To support his thesis, Guiora, whose grandparents perished in the Holocaust, refers to the work of a number of historians who have demonstrated that without bystanders, the Nazis would not have been able to implement the Final Solution. Bystander nonintervention was complicit in enabling the Nazis to commit crimes against humanity.

Giving varied examples of bystander responses—from rape on college campuses to the deportation of Jews in Holland and Hungary—Guiora does allow for circumstances that would prevent the average bystander to refrain from taking a stand. Nevertheless, in describing those watching “my grandparents make their way to the train station in Nyiregyhaza, Hungary,” he cites the following reaction of an observer in a Hungarian ghetto:

“tens of thousands visited the board fence of the ghetto to peer inside or voiced content at seeing crowds herded towards the train station; at the same time tens of thousands most likely pitied the Jews plight. But millions simply lived their lives, went to work, and tried to get by under the deteriorating conditions of war. They paid no attention to the tragedy unfolding around them.”

In his seminal book, Ordinary Men, Christopher Browning attempted to explain how ordinary German soldiers were able to ignore their respective moral and religious codes and kill Jews. He writes about a “circle of human obligation,” whereby Jews were perceived to be “the other”—outside gentile Germans’ social and moral obligations. True during the Holocaust, it was also true in the American South where in the average bystander witnessed lynchings and other atrocities towards blacks.

One wonders if Guiora’s argument is realistic, let alone enforceable, when he writes, “Creating a mechanism whereby a bystander, positioned and capable to intervene, is obligated to act . . . that obligation for it to be effective and enforceable must be rooted in the law.” The author argues that one’s moral and religious sensibility is insufficient to make the bystander responsible for his fellow human being. One wonders whether a law protecting a vulnerable people like the Jews would have led bystanders to take forceful action to defend them.

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