Barbie's trial - and France's

HE has been twice convicted by military tribunals of war crimes and sentenced in absentia to death, but the statute of limitations expired while he was in hiding in Bolivia. Now four years after his return to France, Klaus Barbie, known as ``the Butcher of Lyon,'' is on trial again, this time on charges of ``crimes against humanity.''

The trial promises to be a painful episode for France. It may reveal who betrayed French Resistance leader Jean Moulin to the Nazis, and Barbie's lawyer has warned that many people in public life, including French politicians, will be implicated as collaborators with the Nazi regime.

The role of American intelligence services, which employed Barbie for some time as World War II wound down, is also expected to come under scrutiny - unfavorable scrutiny. The United States has apologized to France for having employed Barbie, along with other former Nazis.

Is the current legal proceeding worth it? Does putting Barbie on trial once more risk rending the fabric of French society irreparably?

The ultimate verdicts will be reached in another jurisdiction than the Palais de Justice in Lyon. But trials like this are important signals. They show where a society draws a line and says, This is unacceptable. This must be condemned.

That so much anxiety attaches to the whole proceeding suggests that there are indeed questions still in need of resolution, wounds to the French nation and the Jewish people still in need of cleansing.

The French have come slowly to the unhappy realization that collaborationists far outnumbered the resisters during World War II. There is still much to be worked through, evidently.

And the lessons of World War II are not just for those who lived through it. They are for all of us - for all who see an evil and must decide how to respond: whether to resist, to flee, or just to look the other way.

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