Thursday, November 10, 2011

Human Nature

My father, having neither the talent of a theoretical physicist, nor the inclination to contribute to a field that brought us the atom bomb, ended up a college physics teacher and film reviewer. He started with physics teaching films, and I have happy pre-adolescent memories of putting up the screen as my father threaded the 35 mm film projector in our living room. As I approached puberty, he shifted focus to films on war and peace, producing two definitive guides during the Reagan years. I started blogging about four years ago, at the same age as when he produced the first guide; his second came at my current age. It was a time fraught with nuclear terror: the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists' famous doomsday clock marking the imminent danger of world annihilation.

How the world has changed in the single generation between him and me! Our doomsday of the decade is global warming, a challenge we may find much less easy to disarm. The disaster of the post-agricultural human animal shadows our every move: strife and destruction define our hugely overpopulated societies. The post-agricultural population boom and its attendant loss of tribe and ever-dwindling sense of personal accountability and responsibility, well, it's enough to drive me to despair. How did we come so quickly to this end, after only a few paltry thousand years of development?

Humans, being simplistic creatures, look for simplistic explanations. But the topic I've chosen for today, our capacity for evil, is anything but simple. We can all agree on the evilness of the usual genocidal maniacs that are always trotted out, mostly likely due to the sheer numbers of people they disposed of. But it's not quite that simple, is it, because my ex, with his usual perception, quotes Stalin: "one man's murder is a tragedy but one hundred thousand is a statistic." Many say Stalin killed even more than Hitler but thoughts of Stalin just don't seem to make the blood of the average detached observer boil. Political exiles slowly starving in a place most of us find impossible to picture, the Russian Gulag, well, it's just not as visceral as the images we all carry with us, of truckloads of skin and bones during the Holocaust, or the piles of skulls from Idi Amin's Uganda.

The images of victims of various genocides, napalm, carpet bombings and the A-bomb form for me an endless collage of adolescent memory. But the most crystal clear of all is my image of a teenaged Katchita sitting in a darkened living room with her beloved father, a mature man of 40-plus, tears running down his face, as he screens the episode of The Ascent of Man where Bronowski, a Polish-German-American Jew who lost many of his relatives at Auschwitz, visits the camp. Nicely dressed in a dark suit and dress shoes, he slowly wades into one of the ponds at Auschwitz where his relatives were gassed. As he reflects on the abuse of power, he crouches down, thrusts his hands into the water and brings up the muck from the bottom, rich humic matter fed by all those ashes from all those ovens. In the 30-some years since, I have never seen a grown man come so close to being reduced to sobbing.

My friend Bob probably suffered about as much as one can, but, I hope, no longer than a few short hours. His children are still suffering, and their suffering is substantial and probably will be prolonged. And Bob's friends are suffering though our suffering is certainly not at the same level nor will it be as prolonged as his children's. I can ask myself, do I feel as sick at heart about what was done to Bob as I do about what was done by Pol Pot? It's a tough question, because the face of my friend is there with me when I start awake in the middle of the night but the rest are images from a past that largely predates me. During the second Iraq war, however, I remember the same night terrors, the waking, knowing my government was murdering innocent civilians and there was nothing I could do about it. It was Al-Jeezera that gave us the images of the wounded and dying children that humanized the evil we were committing. In contrast, such images were absent from Rwanda, the first genocide of my adult life, probably the most rapid and occult in history.

If evil is, definitionally, the intentional infliction of prolonged and intense human suffering, then I believe our concept of evil is primarily about the images rather than the numbers. It's about fates that we can viscerally imagine at the personal level, that we feel in our entrails. Torture. Violent rape. Cruel abuse of the weak and defenseless. Humiliation and powerlessness coupled with stark fear. Perhaps evil has more than anything to do with the imagination of the survivors and their need to tell the tale. It is, quite simply, something so vivid and so visceral that they, and those who hear them, can never be free of it.

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