The limits of extenuating circumstance


The English translation of the Bible, often referred to as the King James Version (KJV) of 1611, brought the noun, corruption, and particularly its verb, corrupt, into the mainstream of ethical discourse and community standards. Corruption had then arisen from near-obscurity, been transformed into a common human attribute and now represented an impediment to one’s spiritual health.

Corruption, formerly defining an adverse state of affairs, further evolved into a synonym for man’s imperfect, corruptible nature. Corruption then reached into the marketplace becoming an occasional adjective for shady mercantile interactions, egregious manufacturing schemes and even politics. Where corruption had once lingered at the margins of society, it now became central to the affairs of mankind, the embodiment of human evil. Corruption was then viewed as an inevitable event in the progress of an evolving society.

Man, however, is not alone even when he is apart from others. He is a creature who interacts with the many others of his species, as well as with himself. But with the advent of monotheism, man’s flawed interactions with other humans came more to the fore; and divine judgment – once a prerogative shared by many gods, some more merciful than others – was now the unyielding task of but one. Judgment, rendered by a diverse committee, had sometimes been capriciously unpredictable; but now it was remorselessly vindictive and certain. “Thou art weighed in the balances, and found wanting.” (Daniel 5:27) And so, accepting the reality of human corruption, there are hopes for the return of a panel of very human judges: “Anticipating mercy where even the innocent may get off.”

Few humans lead lives untainted by moral corruption. Living alone in some remote cave or in an uninhabited desert isle may indeed remove all corrupting influences, thus leaving the hermit to confront the greater sin of aloofness from, and disengagement with, the messy chores of interacting humanity.

Accordingly, a human may be judged not so much by his righteous actions in the absence of human intercourse but by the ways his interactions with the few affect the welfare of the many. Judgment may be easy to reach in a traffic court or in a dispute whether a fly-ball is a foul or a home run since the declared rules are unambiguous and so free of nuance that even a computer can readily be made the presiding judge.

But consider a scenario where corruption of the soul is so intense and the human interactions so evil that the phrase “extenuating circumstances” has lost all meaning. Such a place was the World War II extermination camp in south-central Poland called Auschwitz (Oswiecim).

During its tenure (1940-1945), 1.1 million Jews, and about 340,000 others of many ethnicities or religions, were killed, principally with the lethal gas, Zyklon B. Auschwitz was but one of many such concentration camps in Eastern Europe, yielding a documented murder of close to 10 million humans.

Put aside for a moment any consideration of that vast evil called the Holocaust. Imagine yourself as a Jewish storekeeper in Brussels; you are arrested and, in 1943, shipped by freight train to Auschwitz. You arrive bewildered, frightened and separated from your family. You are then assigned to a barracks already crowded with refugees from many parts of Europe. Because you are healthy and conversant in German, French and Yiddish, the SS guards select you for the grim duty of herding prisoners to the gas chambers. You have become a Sonderkommando; and in return for your services, your diet is supplemented and your murder is delayed.

And so, after this place of horror has been freed of Nazi control, this former prisoner is brought to trial on charges of abetting the extermination of untold thousands. The prisoner contends that this court’s standards of justice examines but one link in an evil chain that culminates in a world indifferent to genocide.

Accordingly, the prisoner refuses to defend himself or his actions, saying that there is no human tribunal so free of human corruption that it can, in unprejudiced conscience, render judgment of his specific behavior.

STANLEY M. ARONSON, M.D. ( is dean of medicine emeritus at Brown University.