Black serendipity

kindlyonesNorman Geras has been doing a couple of good posts about intellectual attempts to humanise terrible men. Here he is on the Cambodian mass murderer, Kaing Guek Eav:

There are not too many people who fail to grasp that Eichmann, Saddam, the death camp guard, the torturer, belong to the same species as the rest of us. They are not of a different race – monsters, aliens. And yes, they are human even in their crimes, succumbing to impulses which other human beings share with them but generally keep in check. Yes further, as humans they may be due forgiveness if they have earned it. But humanize in the sense of thinking of what they do as in some way ‘normal’ to us, more acceptable, less shocking? Never. Anger and the quest for justice are the proper moral responses: anger and justice together with any form of understanding you want, and whatever forgiveness may be thought due.

The issue comes up again in the recent publication of Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, the memoirs of a fictional SS official. I always thought of such things in terms of moral luck – as the main character says, ‘I am a man like other men, I am a man like you’ – but as Norm points out, recent scholarship has shown that Nazis were not punished for refusing execution squad duties. So the ‘just following orders’ excuse didn’t cut it at Nuremberg, and won’t cut it today.

To quote Norm again:

If humanizing the perpetrator means showing that he (or sometimes she) is not secure against evil but subject to impulses, temptations, weaknesses, that could could carry his moral soul away, this is fine. But if humanizing him means prejudging his choice, supposing that he will not behave according to one or other of the moral laws that forbids him to murder the innocent, this is not at all fine. It is also a part of our humanity that we have a moral sense and that some of us will not commit these evils under any circumstances.

Yes. But I keep going back to the view that most men and women could and would have done these terrible things at that time. I think people have huge potential for decency and kindness but as history shows, and as Zimardo proved, it is very easy to change human nature for the worse.

Michiko Kakutani, however, claims that Littell’s protagonist, Max Aue, is ‘hardly a case study in the banality of evil.’

Whereas the heroes of the play ‘Good’ and the movie ‘Mephisto’ were ordinary enough men who out of ambition or opportunism or weakness turned to the dark side and embraced the Nazi cause, Aue is clearly a deranged creature, and his madness turns his story into a voyeuristic spectacle — like watching a slasher film with lots of close-ups of blood and guts.

To which Stephen Mitchelmore responds:

But, of course, Kakutani speaks from a position of moral and psychological authority. As someone employed by a newspaper that manufactured consent for invasions of sovereign nations with the consequent death of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, she has nothing in common with Max Aue. Clearly.

I note that Mitchelmore’s blog, ‘This Space’, now carries the banner headline: ‘a gap in the universe’. I couldn’t have put it better myself.

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One Response to “Black serendipity”

  1. The Kindly Ones now in bookstores! « The Kindly Ones Says:

    […] the thread as bloggers react to the debate on the book. At Normblog. Max Dunbar. Harmless […]

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