Ben Ferencz’s Thoughts on What Can Be Done After September 11

Benjamin Ferencz – Chief Prosecutor in 1947 Einsatzgruppen Trial – In Courtroom 600 Where Nuremberg Trials Were Held – Palace of Justice – Nuremberg, Germany by Adam Jones, Ph.D. – Global Photo Archive (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By Mikael Böök, Isnäs, Finland

In Afghanistan, what collapsed extends well beyond the government in Kabul. What has happened forces the whole western world to face even broader, fundamental questions.

President Sauli Niinistö on August 24, 2021

To my ears, President Niinistö’s words ring very true. Yes, now, more than ever, is the time for deep-going reflections, discussions, and reassessments about the war in Afghanistan and, generally, the «war on terrorism» that the government of USA with its coalition of willing states begun after September 11, 2001. My starting point in this posting, however, is the question: what, in all this, could be of special concern for librarians? The fate of the inhabitants of Afghanistan under the new regime of the Taliban is, of course, of immediate concern, but is here perhaps also a general lesson to be drawn, and especially by librarians

What inspires me to ask these questions is the example of Benjamin Ferencz, a name which must be familiar to specialists in international law and international politics but which I only came across recently in an article about the current phase of the «war on terrorism.» As of this writing, Benjamin Ferencz is spending his one hundred and second year of life (in Florida, as far as I know.) 

His Hungarian-Jewish family emigrated early to the United States, where Ben begun studying law. After graduating (1943), he served as a soldier in one of the US Army’s air defense battalions in Europe.

In the final stages of World War II, Ferencz was placed in a team under General Patton tasked with investigating German war crimes and commissioned to collect testimonies from concentration camps. After the end of the war in 1945, the young lawyer and war veteran became one of the chief prosecutors in the world-historical Nuremberg trials against the Nazi leaders.

Among Benjamin Ferencz’s many recent contributions are …

… his book on the United Nations» possibilities for creating world peace (New Legal Foundations for Global Survival. Security Through the Security Council, 1995) and his contribution to the establishment of the International Criminal Court in The Hague (2002).

During the chaotic days following the 9/11 events in New York and Washington in 2001, Ferencz was interviewed on National Public Radio, the United States» closest counterpart to the Finnish broadcasting company YLE. The background was that he had published a letter «to his friends» on his website. The letter he had titled: «After September 11. Thoughts on What Can Be Done».

What Benjamin Ferencz said to NPR:s Kathy Clark in the interview is still essential reading for everybody, I believe, so I reproduce a big slice of the talk here from

You wrote this letter because you believe that we have a choice between whether our country chooses to resolve disputes on the battlefield or in the courtroom. In other words, law versus war. Is that correct?
Yes. I prefer law to war under all circumstances.
And so how does that apply to this particular case in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks?
What has happened here is not war in its traditional sense. This is clearly a crime against humanity. War crimes are crimes which happen in war time. There is confusion there. This is a crime against humanity because it is deliberate and intentional killing of large numbers of civilians for political or other purposes. That is not tolerable under the international systems. And it should be prosecuted pursuant to the existing laws.
So I want to get into that prosecution in just one moment. But first, do you think that the talk of retaliation is not a legitimate response to the death of 5,000 people?
It is never a legitimate response to punish people who are not responsible for the wrong done.
No one is saying we’re going to punish those who are not responsible.
We must make a distinction between punishing the guilty and punishing others. If you simply retaliate en masse by bombing Afghanistan, let us say, or the Taliban, you will kill many people who don’t believe in what has happened, who don’t approve of what has happened.
So you are saying that you see no appropriate role for the military in this.
I wouldn’t say there is no appropriate role, but the role should be consistent with our ideals. We shouldn’t let them kill our principles at the same time they kill our people. And our principles are respect for the rule of law. Not charging in blindly and killing people because we are blinded by our tears and our rage.
So how would a legal process possibly work? Since there is no permanent international criminal court yet; the U.S. has opposed such a court. Where would terrorists be tried?
We must first draw up an indictment of the crime and specify what the crimes were, listing all the names of the related organizations. Not merely the direct perpetrators are responsible but all those who aided and abetted them before or after the crime. These should be listed and described. And then a demand made pursuant to existing United Nations resolutions, calling upon all states to arrest and detain the persons named in the indictment so they can be interrogated by U.S. examiners.
As you know a federal court, a grand jury, indicted Osama bin Laden almost three years ago in the two U.S. embassy bombings in Africa. That was 1998 and we still haven’t brought him to trial.
What I’m suggesting is that the Security Council of the United Nations can immediately call up — as they have done in connection with the crimes in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, where over half a million people were butchered — create an ad hoc International Criminal Tribunal to try these criminals on the charges which are applicable under the existing international laws.
So you’re saying something that would be akin to an international war crimes court.
It would be an international criminal court. Don’t use the word «war» crimes because that suggests that there is a war going on and it’s a violation of the rules of war. This is not in that category. We are getting confused with our terminology in our determination to put a stop to these terrible crimes.
So what do you say to skeptics who believe the judicial process is inadequate because it is very slow and very cumbersome?
I realize that it is slow and cumbersome but it is not inadequate. I say to the skeptics, Follow your procedure and you’ll find out what happens. You have seen what happens. We will have more fanatics and more zealots deciding to come and kill the evil, the United States. We don’t want to do that. We want to uphold our principles. The United States was the moving party behind the Nuremberg Trials and behind insisting upon the rule of law.
So do you believe that because of the fact that we’re dealing with terrorists, we are re-writing the rules to a proper response?
We’re not re-writing any rules. We don’t have to re-write any rules. We have to apply the existing rules. To call them «terrorists» is also a misleading term. There’s no agreement on what terrorism is. One man’s terrorism is another man’s heroism. I’m sure that bin Laden considers himself a saint and so do many of his followers. We try them for mass murder. That’s a crime under every jurisdiction and that’s what’s happened here and that is a crime against humanity.

To repeat Benjamin Ferencz’s well-thought-out views on the coming «war on terrorism» today is not hindsight. We should certainly not say, well, those views should perhaps have been taken note of then, but now it is too late to repeat them. Because they are still valid now

The thoughts about «what can be done after 11 September» that Benjamin Ferencz have put forward represent an epochal alternative — an alternative to the epoch of «the war on terrorism», and they also indicate how to put an end to this still ongoing epoch. This, I think, is the general lesson that people must draw from the utter failure of «the war on terrorism.»

Let’s now come back to how this concerns the librarians. 

Today, August 25, happens to be the day when IFLA holds its General Assembly 2021. It is probably going on while I finish this blogpost. Imagine that IFLA would henceforward adopt the view of Benjamin Ferencz, to «prefer law to war under all circumstances», and encourage the world’s librarians to come out clearly against war and against the ongoing preparations for new wars!

The librarians and archivists are the preservers, guardians and permanent publishers — that is, guarantors of the availability and accessibility — of the historical memory of mankind. Is not this universal function of the libraries and the librarians reason enough to «prefer law to war under all circumstances?»

I do not know how many librarians had listened to the above quoted radio interview with Benjamin Ferencz when the US government started its Afghanistan war, but there were actually a number of librarians, from the USA and from other countries, who expressed similar views in what they called an Emergency Declaration for a Halt to Preparations for Bombing Afghanistan: Librarians Speak Out! This document, together with 280 signatures is nowadays preserved in the Internet Archive (a version from early November 2001, here. ) The first two signatures are by Mark Rosenzweig, Director RCMS, Social Responsibilities Round Table delegate /American Library Association, member of Progressive Librarians Guild; and Al Kagan, African Studies Bibliographer and Professor of Library Administration, University of Illinois Library.

Out of a simple humanitarianism we ask that the technology and forces ofmass destruction ready to be deployed against the Afghan people be demobilizedand that the Afghan people be spared the horrors of yet another war

they wrote, and also:

It is the people of Afghanistan who will pay for the crimes of terrorists
over whom they have no control. It is the poorest, most vulnerable — the
children, elderly, women — who will suffer for having endured the inhumanity
of the Taliban.

These progressive librarians did not explicitely call for the establishment of an international tribunal to try the perpetrators of 9/11. Yet their thoughts clearly took same direction as those of Ferencz when they declared that

We librarians call for the lawful and most humane and peaceful resolution of conflicts. The war that is about to be unleashed will likely have unmanageable «collateral damage», human and moral. It will be an abomination that will breed further abominations, for it is a war against a people, against civilians, in violation of international law, a war with no end but vengeance, and a vengeance which seems potentially insatiable.

As stated in the archives of the American Library Association, the Social Responsibilities Round Table (SRRT) adopted a resolution against the Afghanistan War. From Al Kagan’s book Progressive Library Organizations (2015, p. 191) we learn, however, that this resolution was defeated at the ALA Midwinter Meeting 2002. (This issue is also treated by Mark Hudson in his 2004 article U.S. Libraries and the War on Terrorism.)

Finally, two further examples of Benjamin Ferencz thinking and steadfastness: 

After receiving news that a team of US Navy Seals had shot dead Osama Bin Laden at a compound in northern Pakistan at the beginning of May, 2011, President Barack Obama announced that justice had been done, but Benjamin Ferencz did not really share the same opinion. «The issue here is whether what was done was an act of legitimate self-defence,» Ferencz said , and argued that it would have been better to capture Bin Laden and send him to court.

Another example In August 2006, when Saddam Hussein was on trial, Ferencz said that he was glad. He added, however, that George W. Bush should also stand trial.

4 Responses to “Ben Ferencz’s Thoughts on What Can Be Done After September 11”

  1. I have sent links to the facebook groups of the Progressive Librarians Guild and the ALA SRRT.

  2. Thanks, Kathleen. In my turn, I’ll give potential readers of this comment a link to your blog (although Anders might have already linked it somewhere here). Your channel is called «Substack» and your personal contributions there are found at here under the title «Ebla to E-Books: The Preservation and Annihilation of Memory.» And you teach history of libraries at the School of Information at the University of South Florida, USA.

    The further events in Afghanistan confirm Ben Ferencz’s words from September 2001. Ferencz noted that «you have seen what happens. We will have more fanatics and more zealots deciding to come and kill the evil, the United States.

    I am thinking of the suicide bombs at Kabul airport a couple days ago, which killed hundreds of people there, including a number of US soldiers. And i mean that Joe Biden just continued in the footprints of George W. Bush: “To those who carried out this attack, as well as anyone who wishes America harm, know this: We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay,” he threatened. “I’ve also ordered my commanders to develop operational plans to strike ISIS-K assets, leadership and facilities. We will respond with force and precision at our time, at the place we choose and the moment of our choosing.”

    From Ebla to E-books. The deities of vengeance. Hammurabi’s law. War. And mostly justified with words from one holy scriputure or another. In the case of Joe Biden, from the Book of Isaiah.

    «In closing his remarks, President Biden, who should not have been quoting religious scripture in his official capacity at all, further misappropriated the call for a voice to speak of peace from the book of Isaiah, applying it to those he said “who have served through the ages, when the Lord says: ‘Whom shall I send? Who shall go for us?’ The American military has been answering for a long time. ‘Here I am, Lord. Send me. Here I am, send me.’” The president did not cite Isaiah’s other words that put that call into context, the words that are carved into the wall overlooking the United Nations headquarters in New York, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.» ( Quoted from the article «No More Attacks on Afghanistan» at, August 27, 2021.)

  3. In my blogpost, I noted that at least some librarians took stand against the war in Afghanistan already in October 2001. But officially — to the extent that librarians can be «official» — the librarians have said nothing, ever, against the justification of this apparently everlasting war of the USA and its coalition of willing states.

    Where do the librarians come closest to being «official»? Well, probably at the General Assembly of IFLA.

    On August 25, 2021, General Secretary Gerald Leitner issued a statement on behalf of IFLA, namely this: Information without Discrimination: IFLA Statement on Hungarian laws on LGBTQ+ content (See

    This seems to be a very «safe» statement to make these days, at least for those wo support the foreign policy of the USA. Whether it it makes anybody safer is another question. Certainly it does not make the LGBTQ+ community any safer, although that might have been the good intention.


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