I recently read Robert Harris’s new book, An Officer and a Spy. Robert Harris is a great writer – he combines deep historical knowledge with a knack for story telling.
His latest book describes the Dreyfus affair from the perspective of one of the key protagonists – the head of French military intelligence. The story moves along at a fair old clip, and the atmosphere of fin-de-ciecle Paris is brilliantly rendered. Whilst I knew the broad outlines of the Dreyfus story, Harris brings the episode to life in a brilliant way, and shows how a miscarriage of justice could happen.
Whilst Harris tells a great story, there are some obvious lessons that apply to our current situation. Dreyfus was convicted by a secret court – the army contended that the evidence should be kept secret to protect their intelligence sources. This allowed the prosecution to present circumstantial evidence which was unlikely to satisfy the general public in court. The prosecution also presented “evidence” in secret to the judges without sharing it with the defense – but the evidence was dubious at best.
Harris describes how France’s most trusted institution – the army – used this secret process to convict an innocent man, partly out of anti-semitism, partly because they wanted to convict someone – anyone – and once they had a candidate, they’d do anything to secure a conviction. The secrecy of the process allowed them to succeed, but also drove them to ever more extreme actions to cover up their actions.
Compare this with the current hoohah around Edward Snowden, whose exposed how the decisions made by a secret court are likely incompatible with most people’s ideas of justice.