Should Bin Laden Have Faced a Judge?

What the Eichmann Trial Taught Us

Two Mass Murderers: Eichmann and bin Laden each ended up at the bottom of the sea, but faced justice in different ways.
Getty Images
Two Mass Murderers: Eichmann and bin Laden each ended up at the bottom of the sea, but faced justice in different ways.

By Deborah Lipstadt

Published May 03, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

When I heard the news that Osama bin Laden had been killed, I was in the middle of an author’s tour for my recent book on the Eichmann trial. It was impossible not to immediately see the parallels between the fates of these two mass murderers, who both ended up in watery graves: While bin Laden’s body was dumped in the sea, Eichmann’s ashes were strewn over the Mediterranean.

Adolf Eichmann was responsible for the murder of close to 1.5 million Jews. Bin Laden had far less blood on his hands. And while both men wished to kill as many Jews as possible, bin Laden was, of course, also interested in killing any American or “Westerner” he could. Each man was ferreted out, in the end, by forces operating clandestinely on foreign soil. Both operations were decisive, swift and successful.

But, of course, what happened to bin Laden and Eichmann after each was located was radically different. One was shot and killed on the spot; the other was put on trial.

It was not inevitable, however, that this would be Eichmann’s fate. It was a decision by David Ben-Gurion that prevented Eichmann from ending up like bin Laden and having justice delivered immediately, with a bullet to the head.

The Israelis were slow at first to follow up on a German tip that Eichmann was living secretly in Argentina. Only once he was given additional, unimpeachable proof did Isser Harel, head of Israeli Security Services, present what he knew to Ben-Gurion.

At that point, the Israeli prime minister could have told Harel to “bump him off.” Let Eichmann end up dead in a ditch. His fate would telegraph a message to all Nazi war criminals that they should not sleep so soundly in their beds; someone was on their trail. Instead, Ben-Gurion authorized a highly risky operation to bring Eichmann to Israel, where he would be given what he never gave his victims: a fair hearing.

One has to wonder what would have happened had bin Laden been captured alive. Would he have stood trial? Would it have been in a military court or a civilian one? It’s tantalizing to imagine. The United States’ biggest enemy would have been offered a striking illustration of American democracy: The rule of law applies to even the most nefarious defendants.

It is here that my mind segues to the recent death, on May 1, of Moshe Landau, a member of Israel’s High Court who was the presiding judge at Eichmann’s trial. Born in Germany and educated in London, Landau was intent on ensuring that this trial be as “undramatic” and unexceptional as possible. The evidence and the testimony would be emotional enough; he did not have to add anything to it. On the first day of the trial, with reporters from every corner of the world present, he offered no rousing opening statement. He did not call attention to the momentous nature of what was about to unfold. He simply began the proceedings.

If there was one person in the courtroom who was the object of Landau’s criticism it was not Eichmann but the prosecutor, Gideon Hausner. Landau berated Hausner for letting witnesses wander off topic and give orations about the Final Solution. He grew angry when Hausner tried to use the trial as a forum for discourse about resistance or other topics that had little connection to Eichmann.

Landau understood, more than anyone else in that courtroom, that the legacy of this trial would be, at least in great measure, the clear-cut message that it was as fair and as just as was possible. Sometimes he succeeded, sometimes he did not. But he never forgot that a trial, in addition to bringing justice, was a sacred forum that could help secure the historical record.

While I am not sorry that bin Laden was shot, I regret that he never was shown the wonders of a democratic system of justice. It would have been the best response to the culture of death and hatred that this man represented.

Deborah E. Lipstadt teaches Jewish history at Emory University. Her most recent book is “The Eichmann Trial” (Nextbooks/Schocken).


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.