I’ve been having some thoughts running through my head for the past little while. I’ve been thinking a lot about evil. I know that sounds a little strange, but there have been a few factors that have contributed to these thoughts. I’ve been focusing a lot on ethics for the past while, trying to decide which system of ethics I think is most reasonable. That sort of plays into these thoughts. The biggest factor, obviously, is that I’m currently taking a course online about Evil. It’s a Religious Studies course, and it is all about how different religious systems and religious people define and understand evil. It’s been fairly interesting so far, and what I’ve found most interesting are the books that we have had to read. There are three in total, along with some other selected chapters, but I’ve just finished the second one of three. The first was by Helen Prejean entitled “Dead Man Walking”, and it talks all about capital punishment in America. Prejean was a nun who acted as spiritual advisor to several men on death row. I also just finished a book by Elie Wiesel called “Night.” Elie was a Jew who survived the horrors of the concentration camps. The book is so devoid of all descriptors, so matter-of-fact, and yet it’s so poignant. So I figured I should put some of my thoughts down while they are still fresh.
While reading this book, I found the events within it so foreign to me. He tells of German soldiers making their prisoners run and shooting anyone who falls behind. He tells of a son killing his own father for a crust of bread. All throughout the book, the question I had in my head was, “How on earth could this ever happen?” The horrors of the Holocaust have never seemed real to me, simply because it seems that I am unable to fathom them. How could a country of people systematically work to exterminate other human beings? It just doesn’t seem possible. And yet such acts are the norm rather than the exception in our human history. Indeed, they’re still going on today in some parts of the world. But I can no more understand those events than I can the Holocaust. So here I sit, analyzing it like the analytic person I am, because I simply cannot process it emotionally. It’s an impossibility.
The one theme that runs through the book is that of dehumanization. It’s never mentioned explicitly, but it’s ever-present. The obvious example is that of the Germans to the Jews. They forced them into ghettos, showed a complete lack of concern for their well-being, then herded them like cattle into train cars and shipped them off to forced labour camps, where the sick and the weak were exterminated with no remorse. Such things I can’t understand. The strangest thing about this situation is that many of these Germans were not “bad” people. Many of them took no pleasure in harming Jews. Many of them saw nothing wrong with it – it didn’t keep them up at night with guilt. In every other area of their lives, they were normal human beings – they had families and children that they loved, they had friends they cared for, and they had jobs and dreams and aspirations. And yet they killed Jews with no remorse, no pity, like a person squashing a bug. It simply was what it was, and that was all. How on earth is this possible? My mind can’t understand it.
But what I found even more fascinating – morbid as well, of course, but still fascinating – was that the dehumanizing did not just go from German to Jew. What is so entirely odd is that the Jews themselves began to view themselves as non-human. As their rights were removed, they became no more than cattle – they simply let themselves be controlled. And so, numerous times, Wiesel talks about how the dead were not mourned. Virtually as soon as someone was taken away, he was forgotten. Wiesel himself promised to say the traditional prayers for a man who knew his death was coming – but when it comes, Wiesel says that he forgot to pray. The man simply did not exist any more. And so the Jews saw themselves as non-human, to the point where a son can kill his own father for bread. The survival instinct kicked in, and the struggle to survive could only reach so far. How does an entire people lose their humanity within a few short years? It doesn’t even seem possible.
But much ink has been spilled about this event since it happened. Historians, politicians, psychologists, scientists, artists, and poets have all had their say about it. Social psychology in particular has found numerous traits of humanity, including a deference to authority that includes the willingness to kill someone if told to do so. The Milgram experiments reveal that a frightening percentage of average human beings were willing to give another person a shock that they believed killed the person – simply because a man in a white lab coat told them to do so. The concept of learned helplessness tells us that animals – whether human or not – lose their motivation to avoid pain if they begin to believe that their actions will not make any difference. Such concepts can tell us the mechanisms behind the Holocaust, but it still fails to answer the real question: How could it happen?
Looking outward, I can see similar situations happening even today. I have been avoiding talking about the torture of prisoners by American soldiers, but it is so entirely relevant to my point here that I must talk about it. Even in a land that prides itself on affirming the basic rights of human beings, its own citizens were willing to torture other humans. For what – for information? Is information – any information – worth enough to throw away one’s morality, one’s sense of human dignity? I don’t believe so. If we cannot hold on to our morals, then we lose what makes us human in the first place. But I see the same dehumanization at work in this situation as well. If we portray the prisoners – the “terrorists” – as somehow less than human, suddenly torture is permissible. Suddenly information becomes more important than the lives of these…terrorists. Of course, they are construed as terrorists even though they have had no legal trial, and thus apparently are not given the dignity of “innocence until proven guilty.” So sure, the details may be a little different. It’s not genocide based on race or religion. But is it truly any different than what Hitler did?
I have no real answers to these questions. Like I said, my mind seems incapable of processing such evils, such gross injustices as these. I wish most of all that I had an answer to the question, How can this evil be stopped, once and for all? The answer to this is more elusive still. But it must be asked, and it must be pondered, and it must be reflected upon. We need to remember these evils, to stick them into our brains and keep them there, so that we have some hope of not falling into the same trap ourselves. As Milgram’s experiments showed, we’re not immune to it ourselves. Such a frightening thought needs sombre reflection. Such questions need answers.