Thursday, May 06, 2004

"Deliver us from the Evil One"

Last Saturday night, I got "sucked into" watching a movie that is one of my favorites: Judgment at Nuremberg, with an all-star cast of actors and actresses. When it was over, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, how it was possible for one group of people to inflict pain and degradation and death on another group of people. Among the thoughts that crossed my mind was this: If the Nazi Party had not existed, it would have been necessary for us to have invented them -- because we can look at the evil they believed and performed, and so say of ourselves, "Well, at least I'm not like them."

Now, reflecting upon the scandal of abused prisoners that has taken place as our armed forces are fighting in Iraq, those who have held such illusions about American goodness and morality must be shaken; at least, if they are willing to consider these events honestly. As I ponder, I recall a scene from a book, a spy-thriller called, The Kremlin Letter, in which a German woman who has become involved with an American agent in the Soviet Union is attempting to describe to him the reason for her contempt upon learning that he is an American. Although the book itself is a work of fiction, the events of this particular scene undoubtedly took place in real life. As a young woman at the end of World War II, she and her sister and mother were raped by both the Soviet troops and by American soldiers. (I've forgotten the order; it isn't important, really.) She does not differentiate the assaults; it is in the aftermath that the distinctions between the two cultures represented by the soldiers responsible, and the origins for her contempt, arise. The Americans, she says, left food and chewing gum; the Soviets gave up their own rations. In other words, the Americans gave from their abundance; the Soviets gave all that they had. (Please don't misunderstand this; this is not an, "Americans bad, Soviets good" argument.) The woman telling the story makes two points. The first is to highlight the "widow's mite" aspect of the response by the Soviet soldiers (although not using that imagery, or making reference to that account, in the actual story -- but the undertones are there); and the second is to say to the American protagonist, who is clearly the "hero" of the story, that he needs to "grow up" -- for he is shocked to hear that Americans could have done such a thing as rape this woman and her family, and then heap more contempt upon them by showering material goods on them; as if these women should be grateful to their violators for their "generosity" in material goods.

The pictures, what I've seen of them -- and I haven't pursued this; a glance at the thumbnails was enough, more than enough -- force us, now that we have become aware of what has happened, to come to grips with the reality of the evil that can be found in each of us. Those of us who are Americans must admit that we are blessed to have been born in, or become citizens of, a land rich in both material goods, and freedom. None of us can know what we might have done, or how we might have responded, when the knock on the door came in the middle of the night, and we, or someone in our family, or a neighbor, was taken away, never to be seen again. How would I have responded to being arrested, tortured, imprisoned? How would I have faced death under such circumstances?

By the same token, what would we have done if we had been brought in by the security forces and ordered to take part in the surveillance of our neighbors, and to inform the police of any suspicious activity? This is not just an idle question; and it happened in both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia -- so it's not (just) a function of ideology alone. Fear can be used to "keep us in line" -- and, if we're told it is our "patriotic duty" to turn in those who are "not like us," we may even feel virtuous, even righteous, in performing what, at Nuremberg, was judged to be perfidious and contemptible. This is not just an idle question as we live in the world after September 11, 2001; and the multi-colored system of terrorism alerts; and searches of automobiles at airports; and bombs found near tunnels; and the "Patriot Act."

What keeps me, and you, from being a Nazi? What keeps me, and you, from being an informer? What keeps us from being participants, actively or passively, in acts of atrocity? Clearly, as the events in Iraq have displayed, it is not enough to be an American. "There, but for the grace of God, go I." Maybe you're not like me. Maybe there's no anger in you, just beneath the surface, ready to break out at the slightest provocation -- say, getting cut off in traffic. Maybe you've never had feelings of hatred, never had any desire for revenge. But if you have ever felt even the slightest twinge in such a direction, you must, if you are honest, admit that the line between ourselves and those who have committed atrocities is a very narrow one indeed.

The evil in the world begins in me; finds its home in me; is expressed by me. If I will fight evil, I must begin with me. It's not "they" -- the faceless, unknown others - -who are evil; it's me. It's not the Nazis; it's not the "Commies"; it's not the "A-rabs"; it's not the terrorists: it's me. It's not even Satan who is the source of all evil -- it's me. This is not to excuse, or otherwise "let off the hook," Hitler, or Stalin, or Osama bin Laden; it's not to forget about Himmler, or Beria, or Saddam Hussein; or any of those who took part, either out of agreement with the means and ends, or, simply out of fear, with the torture and killing of other people. But I have to admit that I am really no different from them; and before I can address any other form of evil, I must first begin by attacking it in me.

"Deliver us, O Lord, from the Evil One." And please, Lord, let me begin with me.