WHY should governments, publications, and individuals pursue the fate of Dr. Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor responsible for the torture or deaths of some 400,000 victims at Auschwitz? Why exhume the past at a remote grave site in Brazil, why attempt to reconstruct the clandestine support system for Mengele, the network of family and sympathizers who harbored him until his purported drowning on the Brazilian coast in 1979 and kept the details of his odyssey in hiding a secret until recent weeks? Pursuing the Mengele events is more than a question of bringing an individual to trial. Justice is more complete, more demanding than that. The system of warped self-justification that erupts into such crimes as genocide must be exposed through the cover-up period that would follow those crimes.
It is a matter of moral honesty to follow through the Mengele case to its conclusion.
West German President Richard von Weizs"acker recently defined the responsibility of today in accounting for the past. ``It is not a case of coming to terms with the past,'' he told the Bonn Parliament early last month, when sensitivity was high over President Reagan's Bitburg visit. ``That is not possible. It cannot be subsequently modified or made undone. However, anyone who closes his eyes to the past is blind to the present.''
We cannot be blind to the present. One can understand why some would prefer to say, ``We have learned our lessons,'' to end rumination over past wrongs that can consume energy needed to move into the future. One can understand, in the Nazi case, the peculiar detachment and frustration of a younger generation over its parents' World War II experience.
But the tendency to excuse wrongdoing, to quit before it is fully pursued and exposed, is itself punishable. It makes us vulnerable, blind to the residue of distorted motives in our midst. Worse, it signals that we have not yet grasped the relentlessness of that justice in which lies the individual and social peace for which we strive.