Sunday, December 19, 2004

Neither gods nor monsters

Sitting in my apartment on a sunny, warm winter's day in San Diego, trying to recover from a night of dancing after my bartending shift and lazily leafing through the January GQ, I read an article about Justin Volpe the NYPD officer convicted of sodomizing Abner Louima in a precinct bathroom in August 1997. The article is a well-written and sympathetic piece by Robert Draper, focusing on the events and stresses leading up to the attack and the effects the subsequent conviction and 30-year sentence has had on Volpe and his family. I say it is sympathetic, but of course it is in no way exculpatory, nor is it meant to be. Instead it attempts to live up to a promise to show Volpe as a human being rather than a mere monster.

Of course, it is easier to see Volpe as a monster, just as it is easier to see the soldiers in Abu Ghraib (and, it seems, a few Marines at Guantanamo and at least a few SEALS in Iraq) as monsters or a few bad apples--as the current Administration characterized them--or to see the two boys who so brutally murdered Matthew Shepard merely as drug-crazed maniacs--as 20/20 has stipulated they were in the absence of any corroborating evidence. Seeing the perpetrators of these acts as monsters or bad apples or under the influence of such strong drugs that their reason and humanity had altogether left them is easy, because it is so reassuring.

If the soldier humiliating a detainee is a monster or a bad apple, that means she isn't like me. Because after all, I am a human being. I wouldn't or couldn't do anything like that, because I have a good moral foundation and I am a robust and hearty apple, resisting the rot spreading through the barrel. And as frightening as it is to face monsters, because of what they might do to me, it is far more frightening to be brought face to face with human beings who perpetrate truly horrendous acts. These are more frightening less because of what they might do to me, than because of what they show me about what I might do to others.

It's easy to demonize others and, like most easy things, doing so is laziness. In seeing others as monsters, we remove ourselves from their midst, just as we remove them from our human community. This lets us avoid the questions that considering what they have done as human beings raise. Questions like: What could lead someone to do that? How could someone who seemed otherwise moral do something like that? How could somebody who was always a good apple so quickly become a bad apple? How far below the surface are the parts of me that could do those same things?

These are important questions for our own moral and ethical health. As Arendt put it, evil is banal. It is commonplace and perpetrated by commonplace, ordinary people, not by--at least not always by--moral monsters. This is precisely the point of, for instance, Robert Jay Lifton's The Nazi Doctors where he documents the lives and psychologies of the physicians who worked in Nazi death camps. For example, he explains how Mengele was able to act as an uncle to Gypsy children, to gain their affection and apparently return it, to bring them gifts and yet on the next day to order them killed. It is tempting in cases like this to say that the affection was just more evidence of this monster's evil. But, as Lifton makes apparent in this and other cases, there is no more reason to think that the evil was defining of his character that there was that the affection was.

As these sort of cases, the results of the Milgram experiments and others which followed--which demonstrated that otherwise moral people will, with very little impetus, torture their fellow humans for nothing more than the carrying out of a purported psychological experiment--and cases like that of Volpe and Abu Ghraib show, we have not just angels of our better nature to call upon but also devils lurking not far below the surface.

So, while those who commit atrocities are not monsters, we also have to remember that we are not moral gods, that put into strenuous situations we, too, are likely to engage in actions that would make us almost unknown to ourselves. Perhaps this is the lesson of the traditional idea of the fall of man--or one of them, since I spend too much time thinking about this particular topic: that though we have the capacity for great and moral behavior, we also have the capacity for the most horrendous of acts. And this applies not just to a few bad apples among us, but all of us. If anything this knowledge can help us to avoid those situations--those near occasions of sin--that would lead us to such acts. This self-awareness might just help us to stop ourselves when we see that we are falling closer to the acts of those we so easily call 'monsters'.

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