May 23, 2024

Relocations: We’ve been in a veritable paroxysm of self-righteousness since Russia invaded Ukraine last year

U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin (right) and Chuck Grassley (left) discuss the case against Vladimir Putin with International Criminal Court Chief Prosecutor Karim Khan. Photo via Sen. Durbin's office
June 2, 2023

But the ascent to the moral high ground carries the risk of meeting yourself on its way down

By Herbert Rothschild

Self-righteousness is among the most gratifying of feelings. It simultaneously assures us that we are good people — a psychic homeostasis we work at maintaining more than we realize — and that we are morally superior to others.

Herbert Rothschild

The Rabbi Jesus is said to have warned his followers repeatedly to beware of self-righteousness, that it’s a stumbling block to love of God and our brothers and sisters. And in what is known as the disciple John’s first letter, the author cautioned, “If we say that we are without sin, we deceive ourselves, and there is no truth in us” (1 John 8). But calls to humility are hard to heed.

Since it’s the first article of our national creed that God chose us to be a light to the world, we Americans are much given to self-righteousness. We’ve been in a veritable paroxysm of it since Russia invaded Ukraine last year. There is much to condemn — the invasion of one sovereign country by another, indiscriminate lethal attacks, murder and the forced relocation of populations, in this case children. All these staples of warfare, both ancient and modern, are crimes against humanity, although the guilty have rarely been brought to justice, and only if they ended up in the grip of their enemies.

In March, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague issued an arrest warrant for Russian premier Vladimir Putin, alleging his direct involvement in war crimes. This seemed proper, and it filled American hearts with gladness. Said U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley, “What Vladimir Putin is doing in Ukraine is indefensible. There’s no question that he and his cronies are committing war crimes.”

Unfortunately, the ascent to the moral high ground carries the risk of meeting yourself on its way down. So it is that the Senate Judiciary Committee, on which Grassley sits, finds itself at loggerheads with the Department of Defense and, by extension, the Biden Administration, over whether the DOD will share with the ICC any intelligence it may have gathered about Russian war crimes in Ukraine.

Late last year, President Joe Biden signed into law the Justice for Victims of War Crimes Act, a bill initiated by Grassley and three colleagues on the Judiciary Committee: its chair Dick Durbin (D-IL), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT). The law permits the U.S. to prosecute war criminals if they come to the U.S. Said Durbin, “By passing this vital legislation, we are sending a clear message to Vladimir Putin: perpetrators committing unspeakable war crimes, such as those unfolding before our very eyes in Ukraine, must be held to account. We have the power and responsibility to ensure that the United States will not be a safe haven by (he meant “for”) the perpetrators of these heinous crimes.”

What Durbin didn’t mention was that his legislation included a provision declaring that the U.S. would not place itself under the jurisdiction of the ICC: “Nothing in this section shall be construed as support for ratification of or accession to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which entered into force on July 1, 2002; or consent by the United States to any assertion or exercise of jurisdiction by any international, hybrid, or foreign court.’’

Over the years our government has made several public arguments for not recognizing ICC jurisdiction:

  • Sovereignty concerns: The ICC could infringe on its sovereignty by prosecuting U.S. citizens for crimes committed on U.S. soil.
  • Due process concerns: The ICC has used secret evidence and affords no right to appeal.
  • Political concerns: The ICC could be used to target U.S. allies or to prosecute US military personnel for actions taken in the course of their duties.

While the first two concerns have some merit, I suspect the real concern is the third, which more honestly should be worded, “to prosecute U.S. military personnel for their war crimes.” And not just members of the armed forces, but the politicians who, like Putin, authorized the criminal acts.

It was precisely that concern that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin raised at a hearing of the Judiciary Committee when he was heavily pressured by committee members to explain why he wasn’t sharing intelligence with the ICC about Russian war crimes. Sen. Durbin asked him, “Why is your department not sharing evidence that we have gathered to help that effort?” Sec. Austin replied, “I do have concerns about reciprocity going forward, I remain concerned about the protection of U.S. military personnel.” Surely, the committee must have understood what Austin was telling them, but it didn’t allay their self-righteous annoyance.

Why, I don’t know. Is it because Austin spent his career in the military and knows of U.S. atrocities that the senators don’t? I’m sure that an enormous amount of such information about our behavior in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and in countries where we’ve conducted covert military operations is buried in Pentagon files. But the senators have at least as much knowledge of these matters as you and I. Do they really want a public pissing contest between the U.S. and Russia about war crimes? Austin and Biden have more sense than that.

On May 10, Durbin, Graham, Grassley, Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) met with Karim Khan, the ICC’s Chief Prosecutor, to receive an update on its investigation into atrocities in Ukraine. Afterward, Durbin declared, “During today’s meeting, we reiterated our support of the ICC’s investigation and will continue to push the Biden Administration to stop withholding evidence of atrocities from the ICC as clearly messaged and recently authorized by Congress. Perpetrators committing unspeakable war crimes, such as those unfolding before our very eyes in Ukraine, must be held to account.” Some ears are deaf to irony.

Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid board member. Opinions expressed in columns represent the author’s views and may or may not reflect those of Email Rothschild at

June 2 update: Location of ICC and spelling of Sen. Durbin’s name corrected.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Email him at

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