Government a Bigger Health Problem than Malaria, Tuberculosis, or AIDS

and I started to ramble on a bit about how I first came to be scared of Nazis and why they still have me looking over my shoulder today. is part three of Nazis Creep Me Out, subtitled: The Road to Auschwitz is Paved with Good Telemarketers

Maybe it’s a little phobic to worry so much about the possibility of your neighbors turning into cogs in a mass killing machine. Maybe not. One estimate was that (), governments had organized people in such a way as to murder about 170,000,000 noncombatants off of the field of war (typically their own citizens) in . An additional number of people, about a quarter as large a total, were killed in the course of warfare in .

Some back-of-the-envelope calculations show that that comes to about two and a half million each year, about 6,500 per day, about one every 13 seconds.

Even as a public health problem, that’s big: Compare it to, say, malaria, which kills over a million people each year, or tuberculosis and AIDS, which kill some two million each, for instance. But there’s something worse about a calamity that’s deliberately inflicted — worse and at the same time something that requires attention: it seems to be not only something that people might hope to prevent, but something that people might be convinced not to commit. That at least gives us another angle than we’ve got, say, on tuberculosis.

There’s a huge preexisting canon of poetic “why?”s about “man’s inhumanity to man” that I didn’t really intend to try to add any more redundancies to, so I’ll stop there.

Just about everybody has thought about this problem at some point or other, maybe even dwelled on it. And then most of us just kind of give up. The giving up is accompanied by a resigned commemoration that goes a little something like this:

The human race — so full of noble aspirations, so capable of warm emotions, uniquely gifted in our capacity for communication and altruism — and yet ironically so brutal, so unrepentantly savage, so war-loving. We’ve always been this way, and we always will be, in the absence of some science-fiction solution, until (chances are) we finally wipe ourselves out. The cost of this is so high, and has been for so long, that this desperation I feel to find a solution is surely not new, and if our good intentions and our cleverness and reason were enough to solve the problem, surely we would at least have a solution in sight by now… but we don’t. We can continue to chant “peace” until we’re blue in the face, but it isn’t going to change this fact. Wars, massacres — nobody wants them to happen, but they will, and it’s a fool’s errand to try to bring us a world without them.

This outlook may be as true as it is pessimistic. But it really misses the point that it pretends to be addressing so soberly, and becomes an unhealthy evasion. I see two related catches: First, it poses the problem of these two and a half million deaths per year as a problem demanding an all-or-nothing solution. Second, and because of this, it can only imagine a utopian, top-down solution.

The first catch comes from looking at the pile of mangled bodies from a century, or from a war, or from a policy and, being overwhelmed, wanting to come up with something that would prevent them all at once. For example: What if we had a world-wide government, democratic of course, that guaranteed political freedoms, and had a universally respected judiciary that peoples and countries could turn to to resolve grievances? Then we wouldn’t need wars and massacres to solve our problems! And pigs could perch on phone lines instead of taking up valuable real estate!

(Some darker utopian visions stem from a similar urge: What if instead of our tribe and their tribe always going to war over this and that, there were only our tribe and theirs had become extinct?)

If in looking for a solution you find none that promise to more-or-less completely solve the problem except for grandiose sci-fi utopian schemes you have no hope of implementing — the next step isn’t to give up, but to back up.

The point is that a proposal that lessens the problem, or a small first step that doesn’t do much in itself but is the first step in slowly, incrementally or gradually solving the problem, may be a good proposal. Even something that merely prevents things from getting worse is worth listening to when the stakes are so high! Humanity may not ever find an on/off switch for this horror, but perhaps it can learn to turn the volume down.

The second catch is in assuming that because the solution is necessarily so gigantic and universal in its nature that it must be something that is implemented top-down — from the headquarters of the United Nations, or via Pax Americana, or from a spacecraft sent by benevolent aliens, or from God.

I think there may be a solution that’s admittedly gradual and slow, but also promises to be practical and to show returns more than proportional to the extent that it is applied. Furthermore, it’s not top-down — it isn’t even bottom-up — it’s anybody-out. It necessarily, crucially, begins with and within individual people. (And no, it’s not tax resistance, but for me that’s part of how it’s blooming).

It comes down to this: I don’t think there are enough sufficiently angry people in the world, or enough cruel psychopaths in the world, to murder two and a half million people a year all by themselves. They need help and they need accomplices — people who aren’t themselves inclined to do these things but are willing to do them anyway by convincing themselves they’re doing something else, be it “following orders” or “doing my duty” or “earning a living somehow.”

As Hannah Arendt demonstrated in her examples, where enough of these people can be found, the wheels of what she calls “administrative massacre” are greased. But she also found that where enough counterexamples are found, they become monkeywrenches in this same machinery. And where they’re especially numerous, they can break the machinery entirely.

Every “administrative massacre” will be a little different — the victims will be chosen differently, and different methods will be used. What will the gas chambers look like next time — a mushroom cloud, a virus released on a subway, a gulag archipelago for terrorist suspects?

Who is stacking the bricks? Who is conducting the trains? You’ll know them by their excuses — “what can you do?” “I’ve got nothing against them personally” “it’s my job” “somebody else would do it if I didn’t” “I’ve got a family to feed” “I don’t make the rules” “they don’t pay me to think about that.”

And you can hear these excuses around you today, right where you live. People who are doing rude, anti-social, dishonest things but who insist that they aren’t rude, or anti-social, or dishonest people — it’s their job, or it’s the rules, or it’s just a part they’re playing.

I try very hard never to make these kind of excuses. Which is to say that I try not to put myself into the sorts of positions where excuses like these might seem reasonable to me. I think I may avoid killing a Jew some day this way.

And when telemarketers call I tell them, politely but firmly, that it is rude to call up a stranger just to try to sell them something, and won’t they please consider another line of work. “What can you do?” “it’s my job” “somebody else would do it if I didn’t” “I’ve got a family to feed” “I don’t make the rules” “they don’t pay me to think about that.” I’m as persistent as they are, and eventually they hang up. Still, I think I may save a Jew some day this way.

I make up aphorisms for myself, sometimes paraphrasing from others when my creativity isn’t up to it. Here’s one: “Have the courage to fight for what you believe in, the stubbornness not to fight without believing, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Usually, like this one, they aren’t very good, either not very catchy or too glib, but it keeps me thinking about it.

And steps like this are my solution, anyone-out. We’re anyone. Over and out.