Mass Death And Evil

Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions. – Primo Levi

We are alive. We are human, with good and bad in us. That’s all we know for sure. We can’t create a new species or a new world. That’s been done. Now we have to live within those boundaries . What are our choices? We can despair and curse, and change nothing. We can choose evil like our enemies have done and create a world based on hate. Or we can try to make things better. – Carol Matas

Rudolph Hoess, Commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau

Rudolph Hoess, Commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau

The quest is simple: Is there such a thing as evil? Not that there aren’t evil acts. Of course there are, we see them all the time. They intrude upon our normal affairs like some sickly boil, spewing their horrid contents on our lives. Most people wipe it off as quickly as they can, fearing an infection that might kill them. Others, alas, sit and stare, wondering if this offal is something foreign – what I’ve been calling spiritual evil – or something all too human. And which answer eases the conscience?

For several days, I’ve ventured to Poland during World War II; Cambodia during the mid-1970’s; Rwanda in 1994. Immersing myself in these horrors is not easy. I understand why most folks ignore the topic. It’s difficult enough to deal with the quite ordinary evils of which we hear: incest and child molestation; people in power extorting silence from victims so as to maintain power; a group of Americans (!) terrorizing Muslims by marching outside their mosque with firearms, expressing hate and threatening violence. For all these things make most folks sad, angry, or turn away in disgust, there is a need to steel oneself and look at all this, squarely, and demand an answer to the question that continues to haunt me: Of what nature is this evil I see?

To forget a Holocaust is to kill twice. – Elie Wiesel

The dead demand more than justice. They plead with us for something far more important: That they not be forgotten. Their voices, their hands tugging at us, how is it possible to remain complacent in the face of this basic need to have their lives and deaths recalled, to join the family of humanity from which they were torn without thought, without care, and in the midst of horrors we may allow ourselves to glimpse, or catch a brief sound on the wind, but can never experience? And our moral imagination too often makes demands their deaths cannot satisfy. Seeking meaning is an insult. It ignores the reality that mass death strips away any ethical pretense. Those who lived and died, those who lived and survived, those who lived and were found guilty of crimes: all of them remind us that there is no room in hell for moral choice. To that end, we must remember but never judge, except perhaps those who not only created these diabolical realities but who accepted the rules and operated within them.

Pol Pot, Brother Number One in Democratic Kampuchea, the smiling, congenial, charismatic dreamer whose policies killed 34% of his country's population.

Pol Pot, Brother Number One in Democratic Kampuchea, the smiling, congenial, charismatic dreamer whose policies killed 34% of his country’s population.

This handsome man was born and spent his youth in the Cambodian Royal household. His sister was a concubine. He was able to travel to Paris to attend university, where he encountered all sorts of ideas, like history, and Marx, and the possibility of a fully human future for humanity free from the oppression of foreign imperialism and domestic authoritarianism. Once people see the beauty and possibility of self-sufficiency and national solidarity, they would fall in line, ready to struggle together.

Of course, this wistful dream was the nightmare of Khmer Rouge rule in the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea. In 1975, when Phnom Pehn fell, the population was roughly seven million. The Cambodians had struggled to maintain a neutral position between the United States and Soviet Union, always wary, however, of their longtime rival and enemy to the east, Vietnam. Between the French, then the Americans, however, Cambodia was dragged against its people’s will in to the mire. Destabilized, bleeding from multiple wounds, the Khmer Rouge had promised the return of the monarchy, only to turn around and begin four years of horror. Nearly 2 million people died over the next four years. Their deaths, as rationalized by Pol Pot and others, were of no consequence; enemies of the promised bright future in which to be a cog in the great Cambodian productive forces, unhindered either by family or class ties as well as any emotion save a desire to serve the people as a whole, even something as human as laughter became a crime punishable by death. To wear glasses meant death. To becomes weakened by hunger and toil was punishable by death. To remain healthy and vigorous meant you were taking more than your share, therefore death.

Comrade Duich, an extremely intelligent mathematician and popular teacher devised a careful system of torture and confession that cost over 12,000 of his fellow Cambodians their lives.

Comrade Duich, an extremely intelligent mathematician and popular teacher devised a careful system of torture and confession that cost over 12,000 of his fellow Cambodians their lives.

Over 20,000 people passed in the doors of Suol Leng prison, also known as S-21, a former boarding school in Phnom Pehn. A dozen survived. This far-too-efficient killing machine was overseen by a genial school teacher who took the revolutionary name Duich (pronounced Doik). He wrote a manual of interrogation and torture that began with the premise that, if the person was in S-21, they were guilty. The point of torture and interrogation was to force them to confess their guilt. Once the confession was complete, worded properly, and presented to Duich and approved, they were taken in batches to Choeung Ek, known to us now as the Killing Fields. Duich would sit by, quietly chain smoking as, one by one, the prisoners were led blindfolded to the edge of a deep pit. They were told to kneel. There they were either shot or bludgeoned in the back of the head. If they continued to live, the executioner would slit their throats, then roll the corpse in to the pit.

When found guilty by a special tribunal combining members of the World Court in The Hague and Cambodian jurists, Duich stood as had thousands of those he imprisoned, and repeatedly confessed, in minute detail, to each and every crime. He neither side-stepped guilt through cowardice, as did far too many of the Nazis, nor denied anything untoward had happened, as Pol Pot insisted in his final interview before his death – a natural death his victims were denied. I’ve watched and rewatched each and every time Duich not only said, “Yes, I’m guilty,” but was at great pains to detail how he was guilty. Like the system of “justice” that reigned under the Khmer Rouge, he was in the dock, therefore guilty, therefore his confession was necessary before any sentence could be announced. Was that confession honest? I have no idea. I heard him get choked up; I watched him tear up. I have no idea if that was real contrition. I only know that it was impossible for me to understand the connection between the well-dressed older gentleman in the Cambodian courtroom and the man who devised a system that created corpses even more efficiently than the Nazi machinery of death. The impossibility of drawing those lines, of seeing any continuity at all leaves me wondering if, in fact, there was any continuity.

Yes, I fully believe the Nazi genocide, the Chinese famine, Stalin’s terror, the Khmer Rouge, the Rwandan genocide, and the many atrocities in southeastern Europe as Yugoslavia collapsed were to some lesser or greater extent, various hells for those who experienced them. To be trapped within systems and events from which there is no escape; whose only end is death; that strip victims of their humanity, leaving even death no real release from the suffering; to plea to God or the the gods for help and hearing answer, seeing no reprieve. All of this constitutes hell.

Which leaves me wondering if there need be a “place” of torment outside these all too human structures of death.

Primo Levi’s quote above captures my sense that, no matter how diabolical the circumstances, there are few truly inhuman creatures involved in carrying out the events. We toss around the moral label “evil” and apply it to Stalin or Hitler, Pol Pot or Mao, yet each person need not have the additional label “evil” added to summarize their lives and actions. That their actions led to evil situations is without question. To deny calling them evil is certainly not an attempt to remove any moral guilt from them. It is, rather, to recognize that persons do, indeed, carry out evil actions; monster, however, do not. Monsters are without reason, outside our ability to comprehend. These men, and all their all-too-willing collaborators in mass death are intelligible under perfectly human categories.

Which should leave all of us far more frightened than the too-easy labeling of them as “evil” and “monsters”. That men and women can and have committed the actions; have set up and participated in hellish systems that destroyed human life completely. . . should give us pause before we rest easy with calling others evil. To repeat: These were men and women, like you and me. That, above all else, needs to be remembered. No devils, no demons, no inhuman creatures. Our deepest darkness, our most horrid fantasies do not come from outside ourselves. They reside in each of us.