Man kills. And he seems to be good at making it seem sensible. It is uncomfortable to feel that it is part of our nature, but we have been killing for as long as we have drawn breath. From fist to club to arrow to gun to bomb to surgeon’s knife, man has become an accomplished killer. If you believe that we are accidents of biology, then your explanation may be that it is a residual but natural product of our evolution from a reptilian brain to a languaged one. If you believe also that there is a corresponding spiritual evolution that is part of a religious philosophy or tradition that makes you answerable to a God, then you must believe that murder is ultimately consequential. Some believe that the escalation is a condition, a circumstance, of being in a Fallen world. We do not know, but none of it makes sense. I do not understand how it can be sensible for us to ask doctors to kill. Has Hippocrates been dismissed? Do they no longer have to pledge “to do no harm?” It makes no sense that an Eric Rudolph would think that it is okay to kill to stop killing. He said that he was willing to die to stop abortion, but after he was caught, he chose to plead guilty to murder to avoid the death penalty.
We live “in a time of great good and evil,” said Walker Percy, “which nobody understands, where there are many kinds of discourse each of which makes a kind of sense to its own community, but where the communities don’t make sense to each other…. ” (Signposts in a Strange Land, 159). Sense-making is one of those things that I, a worrier and neither philosopher nor writer, tend to notice. Who decided that it was sensible for us to kill disabled babies? When did we decide that it makes sense for us to do what Hitler decreed was the sensible thing for Germany to do in 1939? Some think that it is sensible to have doctors just go ahead and kill them, but I did not notice that we were even doing that, and now in ever greater numbers. And who decided that it was sensible to let the Terry Shiavos of the world starve to death while doctors and her parents are forced to stand by and just watch? There is a disturbing precedent for this sentimental, murderous phenomenon, but it makes no sense that we could possibly be compared to them. The Nazis also killed the disabled children, mentally ill people, and the old and sick (Laurence Rees, Auschwitz:A New History, 42). They were what we have become, sentimental, and sentimentalism and murder certainly reflect what Percy referred to as “signs of the general derangement of the times” (159). Now we are killing babies, the disabled, and the sick old. We are already subject to it, and it has happened “without anybody seeming to notice anything strange” (Percy, 282) about it.
Tony Blair, after the bombings in July in London, said, “there is no justification” for killing civilians. It doesn’t seem justifiable for Islamists to fly planes into the World Trade Center or blow up civilian busses and trains. It doesn’t make sense that we would use our young men and women to rid Iraq of a tyrant but ignore the tyranny in drought-stricken Africa. It makes sense to some because there is oil in Iraq but just starving children in Africa. Does it make sense that the insurgents who are fighting the new Iraqi regime would employ such tactics as the one reported on by Lt. Colonel Robert Kelley on an MSNBC Hardball special (27 July 2005) called “Boots on the Ground?” He told of a jihadist who threw a stuffed bear full of liquid explosives into the yard of an Iraqi police recruit knowing that his young daughter would go for it. She was burned over sixty per cent of her body. The jihadist believes he is fighting a “holy war,” but how could anyone think they are justified in targeting a child playing in her yard? And this perpetrator may even have small children of his own. Volunteers in the fledgling democracy have to risk their own children to be free? Is that sensible? Who would not capitulate to the threat that their own children may be killed over a democratic ideal? Is that courageous or foolish?
Some think it is sensible to kill to preserve a predetermined quality of life, to preserve an abstract at the expense of actual life. Some agree that America’s youth should be sent to the Middle East to kill and to spill blood for that ideal. Meanwhile, Americans back home spill only beer at tailgate parties and football games while patting themselves on the back for their role as the world’s policeman.
I cannot make sense of it. I am surely not competent to decide what “we” should do or not do. But someone did decide for us that we should kill disabled babies? Who? A trusted Andy in a doctor’s uniform? A lawyer for the insurance industry? A sentimental politician? The painful truth is that we are all a bunch of Barneys who don’t know enough about ourselves to decide what is right for someone else, but we capitulate to whatever or whomever makes sense at the time. The German people were subject to a madman’s decree. To whom or what have we been subjected? To whom or what do we point?
I certainly do not know what is right for someone in a dramatically different culture half a world away, but killing or maiming or raping children is never justified. In any context, that is just plain wrong. I remember being Opie in a world where we were safe to ride our bikes up the street. But the Opies and Beavers of our time can’t even do that without worrying that some child molester, offenders with the highest rate of recidivism of any other, might abduct, rape, and kill them. I do not know how to make sense of the fact that a convicted child molester, John David Couey, could rape and kill a little girl in his closet in a small house full of relatives, and no one in the house knew she was there. They allegedly told the police that the most likely suspect was the murdered child’s father even though Couey had raped some of their own children in the past.
It doesn’t make sense that Dean Schwartzmiller, who has allegedly molested thousands of children, could be convicted nine times since 1970 for child sexual abuse but still be free to abuse more children in California today. A man who wears a sheet instead of clothes was stealthy enough to sneak into Elizabeth Smart’s home, abduct her from her bedroom, and keep her for his wife within miles of her house while eluding thousands of police officers and searchers. Yet, now he has been determined to be too incompetent to stand trial. David Westerfield sneaked into a neighbor’s home and abducted a little girl whom he tortured and raped before killing. That alone is inconceivable. But how do we make sense of the fact that his defense attorney, after his client rejected a plea agreement, could, even knowing his client was guilty, attack the murdered child’s parents and blame the abduction on nefarious people who shared their partying, but not unusual or high-risk, lifestyle?
I do not know how to make sense of the fact that Ted Bundy, one of our most infamous serial killers, worked a suicide hot line. John Wayne Gacy tortured, raped, and murdered teen-aged boys and then buried them in a crawl space under his house, yet he was a popular local politician and devoted dog owner. I am not going to promise that subsequent columns will answer any questions about who and what we have become, but I will try to make it a point to examine any attempts to make sense of what, to me, is inexplicable. I will try to make it a point to examine the language we use to conceal the reality of what we are doing to one another in this demented, savage culture which so readily kills.
It seemed to make perfect sense to Hitler’s minions in the last century to kill millions of civilians. Feeding and caring for them would have been an unreasonable use of resources because the Nazis believed that it was their destiny to rule over a German Empire that would ultimately dominate all of Europe and Asia. Many middle-class Germans were outraged to learn of the crematoriums at Auschwitz. If some knew and did not dissent, it can fairly be argued that being silent was an assent of sorts, but it is probably more fair to call it a capitulation than an assent. They capitulated to a madman who was driven by an insane theory about racial purity and national destiny. The Nazis objectified the Jews, and the population of Germany either did not understand the potential consequences of making objects out of an entire race of people, or they failed to confront the madness because they were afraid to be thought of as traitors. The Jews were what Himmler called ‘useless eaters’ instead of human beings (Laurence Rees, Auschwitz: A New History, 45). They weren’t people but ‘a tuberculosis of nations’ (3), so the mass murders seemed, in that context, to make sense. It became an ‘extermination’ (39) of some form of virulent bacteria instead of the serial mass murder of men, women, and children whose only offense was the race of people they were born into. No one chooses their race any more than they decide what size shoe they will wear or how tall they become. We cannot predetermine how attractive, bright, talented, or athletic we will become. It makes no more sense to me that someone could target and kill a race of people because of their race than it would make sense to target and kill people over their shoe size.
The German people–compelled by the notion that they were destined to be superior to all other races, a dominant peoples whose right it was to rule the continent– did almost nothing to interfere with the Fuhrer’s plans. In fact, they proudly sent their sons to serve a madman. But they capitulated or participated because dissent was first met with derision and then with extreme prejudice. They were deemed to be unpatriotic if they did not agree with the Nazis. If they were too vigorous in their dissent, they were thought of as traitors to their race and treasonous to their country. Theirs was a nation of destiny, so many who did know what was being done in the name of the Fatherland, perhaps understandably, remained quiet. But it makes no sense that the sons of Germany, ordinary high school students, could so easily become serial mass murderers, or that German scientists, some of the finest in the world at the time, could use their knowledge to make Germany more accomplished murderers.
Even thinking of their victims as objects, as a pestilence, took a toll on the individual soldiers in the SS who had to shoot unarmed civilians. The Nazis had to take steps to minimize the “psychological damage” on, and “suffering of,” the soldiers who participated in the actual murder, escort, and disposal of the Jews (Rees, 52, 293). It sickened the soldiers who were participants in the actual killings because they could see that these were real human beings and not objects at all. To protect them from the reality of what they were doing, the Nazis learned to distance their SS soldiers from the process. They turned to their scientists to devise a way to minimize the soldiers’ direct participation in the actual murders, which, before the development of the gas chambers at the crematoriums, meant shooting them individually and piling the bodies into ditches for burning or burying.
Himmler, Rees wrote, “ordered a search for a method of killing that caused fewer psychological problems for his men” (52). With the implementation of gas chambers and Zyklon B, “the whole horrific operation” could be “supervised by as few as two SS men” (233). The motive was to speed up the process and meet “liquidation goals” (39) but still protect their soldiers from the “psychological damage” that murdering civilians had caused “the killing squad in the East” (230). To curtail the sick psychology that afflicted the soldiers who had to commit the murders, to protect them from the ghastliness of what they were actually doing to people, prisoners were even used to “guide and reassure the new arrivals as they walked into the gas chambers.” One SS officer could drop the Zyklon B through a portal in the roof, seal it, and easily kill hundreds of civilians at once. The soldiers could then perform the “extermination[s]” (xvi) from a safe distance and never even see their victims. Zyklon B was a pesticide used to get rid of lice, so it became a natural device for ridding the Third Reich of pests who would otherwise have to be fed and cared for. It was a diabolical way to save the Germans the inconvenience and expense of keeping prisoners. They were able to alleviate the “ethnographic redistribution” (11) problem and still protect their soldiers from the “psychological damage” that shooting and beating their captives to death had caused the SS on the Russian front.
It makes no sense that Jews could escort other Jews into gas chambers. It is inconceivable to us that these “Sonderkommandos,” as they were called, could be made to clean up “after the murders” so that the role of the SS soldiers in the process could be minimized (Laurence Rees, Auschwitz: A New History, 228, 230). Captive Jews were forced to “reassure” their own people as they led them to a certain and hideous death even knowing that their actions “were now easing the process by which the Nazis killed thousands more” (232). Hitler had objectified the Jews. They had become objects–a virulent bacteria instead of human beings–which posed a threat to the mythical purity of Aryan blood and which threatened to strain resources that should be devoted to the future German empire. It was easier to justify the extermination of pests than it would have been to defend mass murder.
It does not make sense that ordinary young men could so easily become serial killers when there is no obvious pathology in their past to explain it. They had to be convinced that they were doing the right thing. Allen Pridgen, in Walker Percy’s Sacramental Landscapes (2000), a brilliant examination of Percy as diagnostician, explained the late philosopher’s understanding of the ‘mind-set’ of Hitler. “Because [Hitler’s] ideologies” Pridgen says, “ignore individual experience in order to champion an abstract way of life free from the imperfections of the Fallen world, they subsequently deny the worth of any individual who might be an impediment to the realization of the ideals they endorse” (195). The mass killing of Jews began in Russia on the Eastern front where killing squads, which numbered in the thousands, followed close behind the infantry and shot or beat them to death. The killing squads had political officers whose job it was to turn the non-Jewish populations against those whom the SS had been conditioned to believe did not fit the future empire’s “ideals.” These ordinary young men were conditioned to believe that what they were doing was even a good thing because the ideal was more important than these worthless individuals whom, Hitler believed, were in the way of his deranged national, racial ideals.
The Jews had no value to the Third Reich; they weren’t even human. They were what Himmler insisted was a ‘tuberculosis of nations’ (Rees, 3) not people. But even though they had been objectified, the brutality of personally killing Jews caused a conflict between the national ideal and the frail, human emotions of the SS soldiers. And that made the gas chambers which followed at Auschwitz seem more sensible for everyone involved. Mass exterminations would cause less “psychological damage” (Rees, 293) to the murderers and seemed to be a more ‘humane’ (45) way to dispose of their victims. “The gas chamber,” that is, the impersonal, scientific way of committing mass murder with Zyklon B at Auschwitz, Pridgen explains, is what Percy understood to be “the logical consequence of a belief in such ideologies” (195). But the “free scientific inquiry” Percy wrote, is not “free” at all when it is “subject to this or that ideology.” The result, then, is that the “nihilism of some scientists in the name of ideology or sentimentality and the consequent devaluation of individual human life [led] straight to the gas chamber” (Signposts in a Strange Land, 396).
Why do they hate us so? That question was on the minds of everyone after Islamic terrorists flew planes into the World trade Center. The answer is not a simple one. First, they do not all hate us. They are no more representative of Muslims than David Rudolph and his Christian Identity brethren are representative of Christians. Radical mullahs–who adhere to Qutb and his maniacal rants against the West and the modernism which he believed threatened the principles and traditions of Islam–teach that we are demonic enemies of Islam who are bent on corrupting the faithful and destroying their culture. To the jihadist, or holy warrior (which fits Al Qaida’s and Ben Laden’s ideology and which is what Percy and Pridgen would call another infamous, sentimental ideal) that wasn’t someone’s mother on the bus in London or in those towers in New York. They weren’t people who, like the murderers, love their parents or their children and pets. They weren’t people who enjoy reading and picnics and music, who volunteer at hospices and schools. They had become objects who threatened Qutbyan ideals and ceased to be human at all. Wahabists indoctrinate ordinary young men with his violent ideology in medrassas all over the Middle East. They seem to have little trouble turning these young men into mass murderers because they convince them that they are taking the fight to the virus before it has the chance to take root in their own homes.
These are radical clerics whom most in the Muslim world insist are not Muslim at all. As one spokesman put it, “those who have bombed, killed, and maimed are categorically not Muslims [because] they live outside of, and have not submitted to, Islam.” They do condition their followers to become adherents to a murderous ideal that dismisses the worth of people in the West. They are ordinary young men who have been brainwashed in medrassas, or religious schools, and conditioned to believe that Westerners are malignant viruses instead of human beings. And it is natural, even desirable, as the Nazis believed in the last century, to want to kill viruses. We are, to them, enemies in a spiritual war that is being fought with temporal weapons. They are ardent believers, too. They believe because they have been conditioned to believe by jihadist mullahs who use their religion to make the killing seem sensible. They are not mass murdering women and children; they are killing denizens of a corrupt culture that threatens Islamic principles and traditions.
Objectifying language and sentimental ideals–ideologies, abstractions, and theories — become deadly when one does not look closely enough behind them to see the human beings they conceal. But it doesn’t make sense to me in any context. It doesn’t make sense that Rolf Heinz-Hoeppens, an SS officer, could suggest to Eichmann that ‘the humane thing to do’ would be to quickly mass murder those captives who would serve no purpose to Germany and who would be costly to feed and care for (Rees, Auschwitz:A New History, 45). It makes no sense that a soccer-loving, art-loving, believed-to-be-devout Muslim, who accepts that his choices are ultimately consequential to his God, to Allah, could blow up innocent women and children in a country that openly embraced him. I can’t see that as being in any way humane or sensible. I’m not sure that I can even understand what it took to believe that it is sensible, but I am convinced that objectifying words tied to demented ideals were used to justify and hide the truly horrifying reality. We can only guard against such terrifying notions-like the “humaneness” of killing anyone-by staring hard at the language that is used to make sense of it and the ideals used to promote it.
Copyright 2005 Robert C. Harrison
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