Sunday, November 09, 2008

Das Urteil*

*The Judgment

Last night, still weary from being on the road, I watched Judgment at Nuremberg, one of those classic movies that I somehow missed when I was in College. I was surfing through the things we had Tivo'd and it was there. Sometimes I record films on TMC and then forget about them. This must have been one of those because I was surprised to find it there. I didn't know whether I could sit through it; my attention span is limited now. But it was enthralling, because of the cast - Spencer Tracy as the Judge, Maximilian Schell as the attorney for the Defense (he won an academy award for this role, Burt Lancaster as the German jurist Dr. Enrst Janning, the most interesting character ethically because of his seeming impeccable credentials, Marlene Dietrich and Judy Garland, both in roles that were compelling but for me out of character, Werner Klemperer and Howard Caine from Hogan's Heroes, and many other familiar faces - but also because of the story line. Are judges who followed the law - the law the Nazis put into force in 1933 - guilty because the law itself was cruel and inhuman or are they innocent because they couldn't really anticipate the cruelty that would ensue under the Nazi regime? The film came out in 1961 and it holds up still, a powerful film, something well worth watching.

For about 3/4 of the movie I was thinking in the back of my head about the current financial crisis and that those responsible are somewhat in the same position as those judges (who were ultimately found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment only to be released a few years later because the U.S. needed the German people to side with them and against the U.S.S.R. lest all of Europe fall to the Communists.) And that it would be good to try these people, to get at the truth, and hold them to account, though I don't know whether Laws have been broken in a way making such parallel hearings feasible. (This Wikipedia entry suggests there is at least a Common Law breach that these people have committed.) In my limited metaphor way of thinking, Obama's election is like VE Day. The Nuremberg Trials came later, an idea generated by Colonel Murray Bernays for Secretary of War Henry Stimson in response to FDR, in response to a plan advocated by Henry Morgenthau, that called for hanging the War Criminals and having a weak Germany emerge from the ashes. I think we need an analogous set of hearings for the Financial markets, something akin to the Watergate Hearings.

Coincidentally in today's paper there was a long story about the irresponsible practices at Merrill Lynch. Reading this, I got infuriated, this paragraph especially:

Merrill’s board also ousted Mr. O’Neal. On top of the $70 million in compensation he was awarded during his four-year tenure as chief executive, Mr. O’Neal departed with an exit package worth $161 million.
This is not justice. For whatever reason, I felt compelled to watch Alan Greenspan's recent testimony in front of the Waxman committee. Greenspan did not seem repentant to me. He did not peddle the bad securities, but he chose to ignore warnings that something serious was amiss. We need a process that will get the folks who are responsible to show they have made a serious harm.

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