The Persistence of Trauma

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The case of Paul Ingram as presented in our discussion section was both disturbing and fascinating. The notion that a man could be accused, in the total absence of physical evidence and based only on highly inconsistent testimony from the alleged victims, is both frightening and revealing in terms of the strengths and weaknesses of human memory. The fact that he could be convinced of his own guilt is even more shocking. I wondered about accusations of serious wrongdoing and how they are affected by the passage of time. While the events in the Ingram case were relatively fresh when the accusations were made, in other cases much longer periods of time have passed. How reliable is human memory when the infliction of serious injury is combined with the passage of many decades? Is memory enough to stand on alone?


This brought to mind the cases of individuals accused of war crimes many years after they had occurred, when the passage of time had brought changes in appearance, location, and political situation. One of the most famous of these cases is perhaps that of John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian immigrant to the United States who was accused of being a notorious death camp guard during the Second World War. Demjanjuk was first accused of being "Ivan the Terrible", an infamously cruel guard at the Treblinka camp, in 1977.

John-Demjanjuk.jpg


In Demjanjuk's case, he was first identified by survivors during the investigation of another accused (and later convicted) war criminal, Feodor Fedorenko. During the course of trials spanning the 1980s until just this past year, Demjanjuk was identified by survivors as the man responsible for mistreating them and killing so many others decades ago. How could they be so sure? What role did suggestibility or so-called "herd mentality" play in his case or in the cases of others similarly accused?

A major difference in the nature of the cases of Paul Ingram and John Demjanjuk, in addition to the type of accusations made and the length of time involved, is the presence of documentary evidence in the case of the latter. The case against Demjanjuk did not just rely on the decades-old testimony of traumatized survivors but was buttressed by an extant (though controversial) "paper trail". It seems that this is a key distinction between wild accusation and measured prosecution. Additionally, Demjanjuk had many accusers; Ingram had only two.

Demjanjuk was ultimately convicted for war crimes in May of 2011. He maintains his innocence, while his accusers maintain his guilt. Even the most skilled psychologists cannot see into the minds of Demjanjuk or those who claim to be his victims, but even if they could, how much of what they could see could be trusted?

The importance of physical or documentary evidence remains as strong as it has ever been.

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This page contains a single entry by J. Whitebread published on October 22, 2011 9:49 PM.

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