Vengeance Is Mine, Sayeth Kopf

Ed. Note: I’ve opened the door at SJ for posts that would otherwise have appeared at FL.

I am fond of saying that I do law, not justice. That sounds amoral. Perhaps it is. But I have a fallback position. I am certain that I know the converse of justice and that is evil. I write today about an example of evil[1] and why I desperately desire vengeance.

Let’s start with some basics. Legal philosophers who believe in retribution as a proper function of punishment eschew vengeance as a legitimate reason for punishment. Rather they believe retribution has a higher calling. Boiled down, here it is:

(1) that those who commit certain kinds of wrongful acts, paradigmatically serious crimes, morally deserve to suffer a proportionate punishment; [and]

(2) that it is intrinsically morally good—good without reference to any other goods that might arise—if some legitimate punisher gives them the punishment they deserve.”[2]

Retributive Justice, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Jun 18, 2014).

But to these philosophers, “retributivism ‘is not to be identified with vengeance or revenge, any more than love is to be identified with lust.’” Id. at 3.7.

I believe, however, that in some few instances these philosophers are full of shit when they tell us (including our governments) not to seek vengeance. In the case I write next about, vengeance for the sake of vengeance suits me just fine. Indeed, if I was to act in my judicial capacity, I am pretty sure I would be vengeful.

Michael Karkoc is a 98-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. If you believe the Polish authorities, he is also a monster. Poland will seek the arrest and extradition of Karkoc, who the Associated Press reported is a former commander in an SS-led unit that burned Polish villages and killed civilians in World War II.

Photo credit: Richard Sennott/Star Tribune via AP.  Michael Karkoc in his yard in Minneapolis in May 2014.

As Cleve R. Wootson Jr. explains for the Washington Post:

It’s unclear whether the Nazi unit commander knew precisely who had killed an officer in an attack near a Polish village — but there was no doubt about who was going to be punished.

In the summer of 1944, the commander turned his attention to civilians in two Polish villages and ordered his troops: “Liquidate all the residents.”

His men did exactly as he instructed:

The next morning, according to the Guardian, soldiers started setting villagers’ homes on fire, then shooting anyone who tried to get away.

“You could hear machine-gun shots and grenade explosions,” recalled Stanislawa Lipska, a survivor from one of the villages, Chlaniow. “Shots could be heard inside the village and on the outskirts. They were making sure no one escaped.”

Vasyl Malazhenski, a soldier in the company, recounted that he “could see the dead bodies of the killed residents: men, women, children.”

Assuming the Poles can prove that Michael Karkoc is who they say he is, and that he did what they say he did[3], I could not care less that he suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, that he is old, that he raised a fine and loving family while working hard as a carpenter, and that he otherwise lived an exemplary life.

I hunger for vengeance. I want Karkoc to serve the rest of his days alone, disoriented and confined in a foreign country. I can’t get the echo of laughter out of my head.[4]

Richard G. Kopf
Senior United States District Judge (Nebraska)

[1] For a brilliant and chilling description, read People of the Lie by the famed author and psychiatrist, M. Scott Peck, M.D.

[2] There is a limiting factor that I have omitted because in the context of this post it does not apply once guilt has been established. That is, “it is morally impermissible intentionally to punish the innocent or to inflict disproportionately large punishments on wrongdoers.” Id.

[3] Karkoc’s family has denied the allegations and offered a record of the older man’s past that contradicts the AP’s account. Karkoc’s son, Andriy, called the accusations “evil, fabricated, intolerable and malicious.”

[4] Adolf (Karl) Eichmann, the CEO of the final solution, declared near the end of the war that “he would leap laughing into the grave because the feeling that he had five million people on his conscience would be for him a source of extraordinary satisfaction.” Ron Rosenbaum, Hitler, Continued: Afterword from the Updated Edition of “Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil,” Los Angeles Review of Books (July 10, 2014) (citing American journalist and war correspondent, William Shirer, who wrote The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, perhaps the definitive history of Nazi Germany).

16 thoughts on “Vengeance Is Mine, Sayeth Kopf

      1. Black Bellamy

        He’s clicking on the [3] in front of the footnote. That link is an anchor tag to that footnote, just like all the other [#].

          1. Noxx

            It represents a statement that’s not in the body of the article, I mistakenly thought it was intended to lead to a citation.

  1. Mario Machado

    Judge Kopf,

    What if the extradition & trial phase ends up finishing whatever’s left of Karkoc’s corporal and critical faculties? In other words, what if by the time he gets to his cell, he is completely disoriented, literally does not know where he is, and does not and cannot feel the effects of his punishment? He is like a cow licking salt.

    With that additional (and perhaps likely?) hypothetical, will the purpose of vengeance for the sake of vengeance still be served?

    Asking for the practical lil’ devil on my shoulder, who frowns on pointlessness. I myself wonder whether vengeance will be served if he dies mid-trial before the Polish prosecutors get an opportunity to prove his guilt.

    The best to you, Judge.

  2. Richard Kopf


    I wrote this, for among other reasons, to illustrate that judges are not immune from the same emotions, including vengeance, that other people feel. Frankly, I am glad that, after all these years of seeing horror after horror, I can still feel the emotion of vengeance as well as other emotions while serving as a judge.

    Yes, cows lick salt even though they are barely sentient. By the way, when cattle go to the packing plant, they also exhibit fear likely driven by the smell of death. (I spent time as a lawyer in, while representing, a packing plant.)

    Yes, vengeance will be satisfied if he dies mid-trial, assuming that he is found competent. Relatedly, if he is found incompetent vengeance will be served as well assuming he was placed in a mad-house.

    All the best.


    1. Jim Majkowski

      Your Honor,

      I read in one of Ken White’s Popehat (7/9/2015) posts the following:

      We ask the wrong questions when we give people power. The question may not be “is she extremely smart.” The question may not be “does he share my values.” The question is “does this person view power over other lives as an entitlement, or as a tool to be used with the gravest concern and reluctance?” The question may be, “does this person have the strength of character to exercise power sparingly, the self-discipline to keep his or her basest instincts in check while wielding huge power over people’s lives?”

      I admire his argument, and think it better than anything I can write. What say you, especially when vengeance tempts?

  3. David Meyer-Lindenberg

    Your Honor,

    vengeance, like a crab cake with Old Bay seasoning or filet du bouffon, is a delicious thing. It should be enjoyed quickly, while it’s still hot; only after a fair trial; and with special attention paid to the finish, like the one Israel gave Eichmann. For some second-world country to get its act together 75 years after the fact, drag a senile grandpa into court and prod him with incomprehensibly be-consonanted questions until he expires is about as appealing as a cigarette butt in your wine glass.

    All the best,

    1. Richard G. Kopf


      No, no. Vengeance, like revenge, is a dish best served cold (with our without cigarette butts in the wine).

      More seriously, I agree that it is preferable to get Nazis before they are nuts and then give them all the process everyone else is due. Your reference to Eichmann and his trial in Israel is a good example. In that regard, however, one should remember that Eichmann would not have faced trial had Israel not kidnapped him and then surreptitiously flew him out of Argentina. I heartily approved of the kidnapping.

      By the way, do you or SHG ever drink box wine? I recommend it.

      All the best.


      1. SHG

        I’ve often swigged from box wine. My fav is Chateau Extraordinary Rendition. It’s got a nice bite with the earthy flavor of tears.

        1. the other rob

          I always thought that an Extraordinary Rendition was when a spook sang some marvelous opera.

          Many years ago, I visited the Republic of Moldova, once known as “The vineyard of the Soviet Union”. They have a story that, when Yuri Gagarin was made a Hero of the Soviet Union, he entered the tasting room at the state wine cellars at Krikova and didn’t emerge for three days.

          Having tasted Moldovan wine, I can understand why. I heartily recommend it.

  4. Richard Kopf

    SHG and David,

    Try the very rare vintage from Romania known as Sites Noirs. It is little known, but a secret delight.

    All the best.


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