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Finding yourself in the shadow of a successful parent must be a mixed blessing. At school, I found it extraordinary that the boy sitting next to me was the son of a man who'd been to the same school a generation earlier: my own father, a refugee who settled in London after the war, had been educated only to elementary level.

While my father was struggling to learn English, William Shawcross's father was using his command of the language to bring to justice some of the Nazis who were ultimately responsible for murdering most of my father's family. The 43-year-old Hartley Shawcross, newly elected to parliament, had become Attlee's Attorney General in 1945. As a result, he was chief British prosecutor at the war crimes tribunal that the Allies established in Nuremberg. 

Although young William used to listen to gramophone recordings of his father's speeches to the Nuremberg tribunal, he did not follow his father into the law or politics, becoming instead a journalist and author. But in his latest book, Justice and the Enemy (Public Affairs, £17.99), Shawcross explores the issue that confronted his father and others in government: when you win a war, what should you do with those who led the fight against you? Prosecute them? Shoot them?

At least the Allies knew when the war was won. What about the "war on terror"? I remember discussing the term with a senior State Department lawyer while George W. Bush was US president. 

The very nature of a war, I argued, is that it eventually comes to an end. We permit belligerent states to detain prisoners of war because we know they will be released once the war is over. But, however successful the US is in capturing individual terrorists, the war on terror will never be over: there will always be Islamists and others who want to kill innocent people in the hope of achieving their aims. So fighting terrorism cannot be a "war".

The lawyer looked bemused by my analysis. He still seemed mystified when we next met, some 18 months into the Obama administration. Now back in private practice, he observed that the president hadn't closed Guantánamo Bay or abolished military trials for suspected terrorists. I have to say I was rather less surprised myself that these promises had not been kept. But at least the Obama administration had stopped referring to the "war on terror". As Shawcross observes sardonically, "‘terrorist attacks' became ‘man-made disasters'; wars were transformed into ‘overseas contingency operations'."

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March 2nd, 2012
10:03 AM
RE; War or no war, I regard it as legitimate for a state to kill those who would otherwise kill its citizens Dear Mr JOSHUA ROZENBERG I think that the word "kill" is a little too strong. Nobody should take someone elses life. Nobody should have that much power. But to imprisoned, take their liberty, take their life opportunities and let them think and re-think till rest of their lives... With that I do agree. I would love to have response from the author.

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