Good Assassins: Hunting The Butcher: The interesting case of a justified killing

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Is it ever okay to kill someone? Imagine that person was responsible for the hideous deaths of thousands of people. And among them, your own family. Good Assassins: Hunting The Butcher is an invitation to test your moral instincts as you follow the true story of a Jewish Mossad agent tasked with hunting down and killing one of the very worst Nazi war criminals.

In many ways, this is a podcast about two killers: Yaakov “Mio” Meidad, a highly accomplished operative working for the Israeli national intelligence agency, and Herbert Cukurs, aka “the Butcher of Latvia”, a savage and prolific Holocaust enforcer. But it is the former that takes on the role of chief protagonist — dare I say hero? — in Stephen Talty‘s vivid retelling of Mio’s risky mission to exact vengeance on behalf of the Jewish People.

There is something about war and post-war stories that will always magnetize a certain audience, but this isn’t some cheaply made rehash. Good Assassins oozes class. Talty comes to it with some serious cred on the topic, having already published a popular book of the same name (which he’s not afraid to tout occasionally…).

It’s a complex scenario, but the juxtaposition of Mio and Cukur is crisp and distinct. Mio is short, portly, unassuming and excellent. Cukur is tall, good looking, vain and dastardly. Cukur flees accountability for his sins, making a new life in São Paulo, while in seeking that very thing dedicated Mio needlessly runs towards grave danger.

What unfolds is a fascinating history lesson, a cultural and geographical whirlwind, and a background in the dark arts of the secret services. What it is not is as ethically challenging as it promises to be. Indeed, as the title suggests, Talty almost takes it as read that his audience believe such assassinations to be morally vindicated. That the movement within Germany to pursue an amnesty law for Nazi murderers — and general growing indifference to them — is justification enough for this brutal and lawless solution.

The elementary thought process appears to follow thus: evil people deserve to die. And, honestly, this seems unworthy of Talty’s superior understanding of the time and the topic.

It’s not that Good Assassins is a bad listen. On the contrary, it’s fascinating and well-researched, and the archive materials and primary sources are nothing short of exceptional. It’s also high on suspense. But as listeners we just aren’t indulged in what arguably should be the main tension of the piece — the question of whether an illegal murder is a morally permissible murder, regardless of it’s ostensibly noble cause.

There is a strangely touching gesture, recounted in episode 9, which does some work to further legitimize and humanize the act itself. Mossad agents place some papers on Cukar’s lifeless chest: the first, a faux-legal verdict on the man’s actions during the war, and the second, an incredibly emotive witness testimony taken directly from the transcripts of the Nuremberg trials. It was the account of a family, comprised of both adults and children, resolutely and unresistingly accepting their fate — imminent death in the Nazi gas chambers.

Recollections like this remind us why it is so important for authors like Talty to continue to share these stories, which seem increasingly distant to today’s audiences. But we must also push the same audiences to question and interrogate decisions that were made and attitudes that were adopted, on any and all sides.

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