Generous Orthodoxy  




Friday, September 08, 2006

No pain, no gain? Reading as a strategy against the devil

When the news broke two days ago that the Bush administration was transferring 14 terror suspects from secret CIA prisons to Guantanamo, the tabloid New York Daily News featured this huge front-page headline: No Pain, No Gain. This was an apparently gleeful reference to the supposed intelligence that the suspects had provided under CIA "interrogation." (The President's claims in this regard were misleading, for documents show that most of this intel was already known to the CIA months before the terror suspects were captured.)

This Daily News headline, I believe, should have been (but probably was not) a shock to New Yorkers. For one thing, the News is generally considered more liberal than the conservative Republican tabloid, The New York Post. More important and more shocking is the way that the headline assumed the worst in us all. It seemed actually to call forth our delight in torture.

For the past few months, preparing a chapter on evil for my book about the Crucifixion, I have been reading steadily in the literature on the subject. Most recently I have been reading the important book Ordinary Men, by Christopher Browning (1992). This is an account of a police battalion of "ordinary" middle-aged German men, virtually none of whom had ever seen military service, deployed to Poland in 1942-3 where, with appalling rapidity, they morphed into an efficient killing machine. The battalion, consisting of fewer than 500 men, loaded 45,000 Jews onto trains headed for extermination at Treblinka, but more incomprehensibly, they shot Jews (and also "undesirable" Poles) at close range by the scores of thousands over a period of many months. By the time they finished their work in the Lublin district, rendering it judenfrei (Jew-free), the "ordinary men" of Police Battalion 101 had shot point-blank (the "neck shot" was preferred) at least 38,000 Jews, including thousands of infants and children. I have been reading about the Holocaust all of my life, but this particular account has a particularly harrowing effect on the reader because we live, on the page, with this battalion of ordinary men for many months, through numerous "actions," and we can almost hear the sounds of the countless rounds of ammunition being fired and almost see the faces blown apart as they continue the "Jew hunt" (judenjagd) from town to town, farm to farm, almost from tree to tree.

Marilyn Stasio, the crime-fiction reviewer for The New York Times, recently wrote that weak people, or people who are reduced to weakness by circumstances, evoke cruelty from those in a position of strength. This has been demonstrated over and over again in recent human history. In countries under military occupation it is a particular temptation. Under certain circumstances when group approval is present, the mistreatment, brutalization and killing of defenseless people can become sport. This is true from the top to the bottom of society, from the actions of armies to the level of the school playground; recent news stories have reported the suicide of a young boy so mercilessly tormented by his schoolmates that he hanged himself.

A review by Steven Pinker (professor of psychology, MIT) of Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century by Jonathan Glover (moral philosopher, Yale) has this to say:

"The prevailing wisdom among many intellectuals has been that evil has nothing to do with human nature and must be attributed to political institutions ...[but] Glover does not let our species off so lightly. He shows that distinctive patterns of cruelty and callousness pop up repeatedly in history, cutting across times, places, and political systems. He insists that 'we need to look hard and clearly at some monsters inside us.'"

George Will wrote a column in Newsweek about two books: Ordinary Men and Neighbors, the 2001 book by Jan Gross (professor, NYU) telling how community leaders in the Polish village of Jedwabne murdered their Jewish neighbors. Of 1600 Jews in Jedwabne, only about a dozen were able to escape. How could this have happened? "At bottom," Will writes, "the explanation is not in this or that national history but in humanity as it quickly becomes when severed from social restraints." He quotes philosopher Eric Vogelin: "The simple man ...is a decent man as long as the society as a whole is in order, but [he] then goes wild, without knowing what he is doing, when disorder arises somewhere and the society is no longer holding together." (Newsweek 9/7/01).

George Will concludes: "Why in Jedwabne did neighbors murder their neighbors? Because it was permitted. Because they could." [emphasis added]

I am more and more attracted to the mind of George Kennan, the incomparable diplomat-writer who defined the Cold War in his famous 1946 "Long Telegram" and continued to command respect until his death last year at the age of 101. Kennan has left us a body of beautifully-written reflections. In a 2000 New Yorker profile, he says that late in life he has become strongly drawn to Christianity. He explained: “It recognizes in the human condition the same element of tragedy that I recognize myself...modern man is a faulty entity. He has a great deal of the animal in him. His sexual appetites. His love of power. These are qualities of immense power, and less than admirable." Kennan did not grasp the completeness of the gospel, but he deeply appropriated New Testament anthropology which depicts humankind imprisoned by "wholly uncontrollable -- animalistic, if you will --instinctive compulsions." (New Yorker 11/13/2000). He declared, "There is a little bit of the totalitarian buried somewhere, way down deep, in each and every one of us."

I am finding it difficult to fight off the feelings that something terrible is happening to the American soul. There is nothing statesmanlike coming from any of our national leaders, and there is no one on the horizon that offers much hope in this regard. If there was an outcry from the churches about our treatment of prisoners, we would at least have a rallying point, but despite the efforts of a very few (David Gushee, Richard Hays, John Buchanan, George Hunsinger come to mind), there is mostly silence. And in the meantime, yet another genocide has been unfolding in Darfur while the powerful nations look away. Another must-read book for our time is Samantha Power's Pulitzer-Prize-winning I. This, too, makes distressing (but essential) reading. Its subject is the repeated failure of successive American administrations to do anything to stop--or even to acknowledge in a timely fashion--the massacres of Armenians, Jews, Cambodians, Kurds, and Rwandans. Only in the case of Kosovo did we step in (largely because it was Europe), but too late to save the thousands murdered at Srebrenica.

My friend Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, who died recently, once said to me that the underlying principle of the whole Judeo-Christian enterprise is "the defense of the defenseless." I don't know of a better way to encapsulate it than that. No matter how atrocious the crime (and I believe Saddam Hussein to be a genuine monster on the order of Hitler and Stalin), once he is our prisoner, he is defenseless; and the way we treat him will permanently affect our own humanity or lack thereof. Setting aside the question of the effect of torture on the person being tortured, think of what it does to the torturer. What sort of person signs on to torture another? "Ordinary men"? The measures that President Bush wants to legalize are forbidden in the Army Field Manual. The idea, according to insiders who spoke to reporters off the record, is to protect "interrogators" (read torturers) from being prosecuted under amendments added to the War Crimes Act that were passed in the 1990s. In many cases such interrogators are hired by the CIA to do this work. Is this what we want? Basic to Christian ethics is a willingness to do whatever has to be done oneself, not to ask someone else to do it while we keep our hands clean. That is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer himself undertook to participate in a plot against Hitler.

Also basic to Christian ethics is a compatibility between means and ends, as Bonhoeffer recognized when he made his exceptional decision to step outside. When evil means are used for a supposed good end, a humble and repentant attitude 9such as Bonhoeffer's) is suitable, not preening self-righteousness. The means that the US has used with the 14 and many others who may be innocent is not unlike the notorious methods used in Argentina where political prisoners were "disappeared" every day. Only now have the 14 been registered with the Red Cross; prior to this, it was as though they did not exist. As prime minister Zapatera of Spain said yesterday, the fight by democracy against terrorism "is not compatible with the existence of secret prisons."

Thinking about these things while reading Ordinary Men has been profoundly unsettling; yet at the same time, strangely, it has been strengthening. It is good to know that there are a few people like Christopher L. Browning and Samantha Power who care enough about plumbing the depths of human nature to write such books, instead of prattling on about "the triumph of the human spirit." Reading such books with care and attention is a strategy against the devil. Such books demands introspection and reflection. These authors' struggles to understand the darkness of the human heart might actually result in at least a few people's determination to come to grips with their own darkness. And that process might actually result in renewed hope and courage for the trials that lie ahead of all those who are resolved to live life responsibly.