Accessible evil

In 1945, when the full extent of Nazi atrocity was revealed, the constant question for the world was how it could have happened. How was it that a society not entirely unlike our own, with a heritage not unlike our own, could have fallen so far astray? That such immense effort had been directed towards the singular goal of extermination demonstrated “an immense human failure,” which did “enormous harm to ethics by showing how ethical teachings could be overridden, rendered dysfunctional, or even subverted to serve the interests of genocide.”[1] This fact was the subject of a number of post-war experiments designed to test the limits of authority and obedience in a democratic society. The most famous of them are the Milgram experiments at Yale, and the Stanford Prison Experiment. The question they sought to answer was whether or not there was something different, something authoritarian, about the personality of a perpetrator. What they discovered instead was that evil was accessible to all. The great majority of Stanley Milgram’s subjects would continue to administer electric shocks to a supposed victim long after they believed severe harm would result. At Stanford, the experimenter Phillip Zimbardo was forced to halt his test out of fear that it would “go too far” after the subjects who were role-playing as guards became abusive and hostile towards their prisoner compatriots.[2] The shocking results led him to conclude that “any deed that any human has ever committed, however horrible, is possible for any of us – under the right or wrong situational circumstances.”[3] In actual malice or consequence there can be little comparison between the absolute horrors of the past and those which might arise today; it would be largely meaningless besides, as how can subjective evil or suffering be seriously judged? The point of such a discussion is not to establish any sort of hierarchy of injustice, but rather to demonstrate the absurdity of the notion that past horrors were produced by a force with no parallel in history, or within our own societies.

This mistaken notion arises in part from the popular conception of the Holocaust as it exists within our society. We think of it as the product of a Nazi state which “was a mighty machine, manned by countless nameless, faceless bureaucrats and soldiers who were no more than cogs in the apparatus, obediently and unthinkingly doing whatever they were told, without much conviction of their own, except loyalty to the system.”[4] . The question of how the Holocaust came to be is, in this instance, answered simply, through simple attribution of evil intent, fanatical character, and mindless subservience to the perpetrators. While such a conception does not excuse the responsibility of the perpetrators, it does ease our own burden of self-examination. Because we are troubled by what was done, because we have no evil intent, because we are not fanatics, or thoughtless in our action, the crimes of Nazism are entirely foreign to our being. They adopt the character of something which, because it happened in the past, is similarly confined to the past. Similar extrapolation applies to any evil which we might confront. Greed is the product of exploitation, and since we do not exploit, we must not be greedy. Terrorism is the domain of hateful zealots, and since we are not such, we cannot terrorize. By placing both actions and motives safely in the past or, as has happened in other instances, in a foreign land, we remove them as well from our own self-reflection.

However, so doing, we engage ourselves in a basic conceit: the mistaken belief that our own society is somehow immune from the distortions of evil and ill-intent. Last week the absurdity of such a belief was on display for the world to see. Serious men, contenders all for the most powerful position in the world, were asked a fundamental ethical question: is it permissible to kill innocents? In their answers, many failed. Donald Trump, confronted by his assertion that “we must kill the families of ISIS members,” vacillated before making an insane pronouncement that terrorists – people supposedly without concern for their own lives, or the lives of others – would be influenced by the fact that their families might be held under the gun. He had previously made the connection to the awful attack in San Bernadino by saying that the families of those terrorists were somehow complicit. Whether they were or not is a non-sequitur. Conspiracy to commit terrorism is already a crime, punishable by law. However, what Donald Trump advocated for lies far outside the bounds of law. It lies beyond the bounds of human decency. The two terrorists in San Bernadino left behind an infant child. The concrete consequence of what Donald Trump suggests would be the murder of an innocent.

That the idea was broached at all points to the second great conceit which infects our society: the mistaken belief that that which is done to another will not in turn be done to oneself. It is the basic refuge of those who would permit anything which is done by their own camp, so long as it is done in defense of the same. And, last week it was stunningly inverted by Donald Trump, who complained that “they can kill us, but we can’t kill them?” As if the question is one of can or cannot, as opposed to should, or should not. The United States has at its disposal the most powerful military force ever. It is within our power to kill all and any who would oppose us. But, in so doing we would multiply those who would stand against us, and rightly so. It would turn not only our victims, but the entire world against us. The question that was asked of Donald Trump which he failed to answer was if we should pursue this path of retributive violence, what will distinguish us from our enemies? The answer is that there is nothing to draw the difference. If we were to follow his guide, if we were to meet wrong with wrong, then it must be known that “anybody, at any time, may equally find himself victim or executioner.”[5] We would be mistaken to think ourselves secure as a consequence of death dealt in foreign lands, because such wanton violence returns home all too easily. Our surrender to evil would usher in a more dangerous world than we have ever previously known – one wherein the only rule would be by the gun.

[1] John K. Roth, In the Shadow of Birkenau: Ethical Dilemmas during and after the Holocaust (Washington D.C.: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2005), 10.

[2] Abram de Swaan, The Killing Compartments: The Mentality of Mass Murder (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), 30-32.

[3] Swaan, The Killing Compartments, 32.

[4] Swaan, The Killing Compartments, 22.

[5] Sartre, La Victoire, in Alleg, La Question, xxvii

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