What is the role of an international court? Should any nation feel obligated to submit to the laws of another country? In what ways should the perpetrators of genocide be held accountable for their actions? What does it mean to commit a crime against humanity? Is it ever possible for justice to be served in such extreme situations?
These are not questions posed to the latest Supreme Court nominee; rather, they were the focus of a series of discussions in Mr. Sigward’s humanities classes this week. As they near the end of a comprehensive study of the Holocaust, the students are beginning an exploration of the significance of the Nuremberg trials, which were convened after the atrocities of World War II were revealed. In the course of the class conversations, recurring themes emerged: the role of bystanders, the importance of truth, and the challenges of confronting unjust people or institutions.
In their literature study class, the students are reading Ray Bradbury’s futuristic novel Fahrenheit 451. They were asked if they could identify any common themes between the book and the events of the Holocaust. Immediately, hands went up. “Definitely the theme of being a bystander, and feeling regret for not standing up when you should,” said one student. Her comment sparked many others, related to the self-protective tendency of people in Nazi-controlled Europe to report suspected Jews or to turn in their neighbors in order to remain safe themselves. The students considered each of the main characters in the book and found parallels between the behavior of those fictional individuals and the actual events in the 1930’s. They talked about the enormous courage required to take a stand against injustice.
The next morning in humanities class, the subject turned to the Nuremberg trials. Mr. Sigward aked, “Is there a greater good for society from holding a trial in these circumstances?” The class felt strongly that a trial provided an opportunity to defuse the need for vengeance by providing a more rational and reasoned approach to holding people accountable for their actions. Examples from history and literature abounded, including the present-day tragedy in Darfur, the trial in To Kill a Mockingbird, and the role of the UN in protecting human rights. As the students considered various situations, events, and points of view, the importance of a trial for establishing a historical record arose as a central idea. What also emerged from the students’ articulate and sensitive responses was their ability to draw connections among a broad range of events, topics, and sources of information. This critical thinking skill of synthesis is an essential tool for our young adults as they build their own understanding of the world.