I’m not sure what we’re all doing here, exactly.
I think it’s fair to say that when the Allies liberated the German concentration camps in 1945, most of the world was shocked by what they saw there. They had not known that mankind was willing to commit an enormity of that measure.
And so we learned then what we were really capable of. Maybe we should have known before – the record of man committing evil against man is as old as history itself – but, for whatever reason, we did not even seem to suspect before then. Certainly, we knew after.
We saw that we were monsters, that we would tear each other apart for the sheer joy of it, that we would grind out the lives of the young and the vulnerable by the million to sate our own blood-thirsty needs.
The Germans were not the first people to commit genocide, and they weren’t the last. But they were a fully modern, secular nation, and that proved to us that no creed or technology of thought yet devised places a people out of the reach of those terrible impulses. It seems we carry our capacity for annihilation with us, that we are born with it, like our capacity for love or language.
Those camps were our own darkest heart brought to light, and when we looked them full in the face, we faced a choice: we could abandon ourselves to the despair of the wicked, embrace the nihilism that such evil implied, or we could repudiate it.
However, since human evil is a fact, since it has touched every age and every nation, in order to deny it in ourselves, we must believe that we can change. And, in order to change, we must be able to learn. If we cannot learn, history will bend again and again towards those camps, towards the ovens and mass graves, and we will be monsters still.
But what would it mean to learn away evil? Presumably, it would not merely mean that we refrained from rounding Jews into camps and exterminating them, or rounding anyone into camps and exterminating them. It would mean understanding the grave errors in thinking which led us there.
The most serious error is this: that it is useful or correct to think about groups: national, religious, socieconomic, racial groups, as moral units, to fear or condemn them as though they were individuals. Treating groups as individuals, as though they possessed the characteristics of individuals (‘values’, ‘intelligence’, ‘trustworthiness’, ‘criminality’), is rarely useful and often evil, and the events of the last century (not just the Holocaust, but also the American Civil Rights movement, the advances of women’s rights in much of the world, the slow death of European colonialism, the enormous genocides in China and the USSR) should have convinced absolutely every thinking person of that.
But my own countrymen have just elected a man to the office of the President of the United States in a large part because of his propensity for exactly this kind of thinking: his willingness to treat Mexicans as a group, “blacks” as a group, Muslims as a group, to act upon them as though they were individuals, to register or ban them. We are still making this same mistake. We aren’t learning.
This lesson is so important, so necessary to the functioning of a moral society, that, if we have failed to grasp it after everything we’ve seen, then all our manners and petty ethics and customs are so much farse: play-acting at true civilization, and I don’t understand why we bother. If the dark evil still beats within us which causes us to drive the other out into the cold because he is the other, to strike him down or deny him, then why are we bothering to honor our speeding tickets or queue at supermarkets or refrain from parking in the handicap spots? If we still haven’t learned that children are children wherever they come from, if we are still willing to let them die because we can’t look past their category designation, then we are doomed and I don’t understand why I pay my taxes or say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. These are the trifling rituals of civilization – we have failed to grasp the fundamentals.
I will pay my taxes; I will say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, because I wish to participate in a civil and good society. But these gestures do not make a society civil or good – they are just niceties propping up a rotten structure unless we can learn and move forward, can understand our mistakes and become better. And we aren’t better yet.
Selection of Hungarian Jews at the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center. Poland, May 1944.— Yad Vashem Photo Archives, taken from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Website, http://www.ushmm.org