Chatting with a Reader About War Crimes

In discussion with a reader (liberally edited for clarity), I try to find the magic flip-switch to cut the power to atrocity, and I introduce “The gospel according to The Picket Line:”

: Now, about those war crimes…

A Reader: Where did you get this Truman quote? “The denial of reality started early: President Truman, when he announced the bombing, called the city of Hiroshima ‘a military base’ that was chosen ‘because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians.’ ”

: The quote is from his (I think) address to the nation about the bombing. I think that was the second of his public announcements about it. You can Google for it.

Reader: I liked your take on it. As I see it, the issue for people placed in Eichmann’s position is what do you do when your society, (which as your basic frame of reference for morality, norms, etc.) suddenly goes off its rocker? You really can’t protest, because you know where that’ll get you, Jew-lover, so you either play the game or you attempt to drop out of society completely. I think that the latter is very difficult for most to actualize. So the next best thing to do is find ways to fit the blinders.

: Eichmann isn’t a great example of what you’re talking about, I think, because he was so intimately involved in the logistics of the Holocaust that it’s hard to imagine he was anywhere near as passive or unenthused as he tries to represent.

Reader: Granted, not the best example.

: A better case might be the thousands of people who were also necessary to the process but at lower levels. Auschwitz was killing, what, 9,000 people a day or something? It takes a lot of people to do that.

Reader: Yep.

: And then, for the purposes of The Picket Line, there are the taxpayers, who were also essential to the process (assuming the Nazis didn’t just loot other countries to meet their revenue needs)… though I’m being far too bold to assume that I’d be courageous enough to go up against the Gestapo. You only get to wish you woulda unless you actually did.

Reader: Indeed. Another way of looking at it is that even though you find serious flaws with our government, at least you live in a country where you are offered a third option: To vent.

: Well, even in Nazi-occupied Europe people did resist, both actively and passively.

Reader: Schindler & the like, you mean?

: Yeah. There are lots of examples of people who put spanners in the works. And there are some who joined resistance movements, both violent and nonviolent, inside occupied territories. Denmark & France come to mind.

Reader: Well that’s Denmark & France — more to be expected. I mean, it’s not surprising to find resistance in occupied territories.

: But it’s not as though the Gestapo wasn’t just as mean there. Probably worse. So even when it gets as bad as it gets, there’s still the third path.

Reader: Sure… though at a much greater price.

: Well, Eichmann could have taken an honorable coward’s path and just have become progressively more inept until he was replaced or forced into retirement or some such. Chances are, he just plain liked his job. “Good pay, prominent position, nice uniform, gets you invited to good parties, you get to travel all over the Reich. Hate to give that up. I mean, they’d just replace me with someone else and nothing would really change anyway, right?”

Reader: Exactly.

: So how do people become essential participants in horrible, premeditated, deliberate, conscious cruelties like Auschwitz and Hiroshima without having the intention of being horrible or cruel, and how can this weird intellectual bypass be interrupted on an individual scale or on a larger scale? And when you’re finished with that one maybe you can help me decide whether God could create a rock so heavy that even He could not lift it.

Reader: You want to know how come Auschwitz and how come Hiroshima? How about this: Auschwitz was the end result of a botched job of patching Europe back together and coming up with a stable League of Nations after World War One, and Hiroshima came from the desire to win a war we didn’t start.

: Well, those are summaries of explanations of the way certain historical events played out, but I don’t think they have the same form as the answer to the question I’m trying to ask would have. There are a lot of paths that could have led from Versailles. One of them led to Auschwitz. I’m more interested in the way a person can voluntarily be an essential or at least very useful part of something awful and at the same time deny either choice or responsibility or both. Because it seems like this denial is necessary for participation, except for people who really are deliberately being assholes either mistakenly or out of malice, whom I’d like to think are in the minority.

Reader: Are you asking what’s hardwired in man, a seemingly intelligent species, that he’s capable of such wanton disregard for the ethical treatment of his fellow man when under great duress?

: Even when not under particularly great duress.

Reader: How about because deep down inside we like to believe we’re nice folk and that we’re on the good team?

: But actually being nice folk and fighting for the good team is what… too hard? too inconvenient? an opportunity that’s only available to the lucky? So we play make-believe as a booby prize?

Reader: I believe that most folk cannot distance themselves enough from their society to evaluate it objectively. Their society is “the good team.” Any holes that exist can easily be glossed over. (It beats trying to address that everything that you know is a lie — take the red pill, dude.) And there are folks who simply buy the party line: “Yes, I honestly believe that the world would be a better place without all them damn Jews. They’re not even human anyway.” Humanity sucks.

: Sure, but I’m thinking more of folks like the founder of the company I used to work for, who pulled that “our software will save innocent civilians by making war more informationish” stuff out of his justification bag, and then probably clapped his hands, spun around and believed it twice as hard for having said it to a reporter.

Reader: It’s because he doesn’t read The Picket Line.

: If it’s pointed out to him that he turns out to be wrong about that (and I’ve emailed him, but he doesn’t reply so I don’t know if he even reads ’em), he’ll probably just reach into his bag for another justification. And no amount of showing “well, actually that’s not factually correct” will help, because the justifications will just start getting less and less available to factual refutation until finally they’re like White House press conferences — sounding vaguely fact-like in their format but having no factual content at all. And yet, if you put ’em on the stand at a war crimes trial they’ll say “how could I have known — at the time everybody sincerely believed [insert nonsense here].”

Reader: It’s because he thinks he’s playing for the good guys. And the good guys report that smart bombs mean fewer civilian casualties. And he finds no need to further investigate the issue. I think you know the answer to the question you’re asking: It just sucks too much to accept an unpleasant reality when a pleasant orthodox fantasy is at your disposal.

: Doesn’t it suck worse to be suffering from hallucinations and being unable to match your actions and perceptions with the world around you?

Reader: No… I say the former sucks more. But good luck trying to convince people otherwise.

: If I don’t want to get a horrible toothache and have my teeth drilled, I can brush my teeth regularly or I can tell myself “my teeth are clean because there are magic gnomes who live in my mashed potatoes and clean my teeth while I’m sleeping.” Which one is more likely to fulfill my wants?

Reader: You’re assuming that people’s wants aren’t being met.

: Yeah — I think people want the U.S. to be a democracy, for instance. Well, if you want that, you’ll want to push your government toward democratic behavior. Or you can just say “the United States is the freest nation on earth” and stay in make-believe land.

Reader: People think they do live in a democracy, and a free-market economy for that matter.

: Do they want to live in a democracy do you think, or do they want to be able to say they live in a democracy? Maybe just the latter, eh?

Reader: The latter. The former takes too much effort. Low voter turnout isn’t just a reflection of voter dissatisfaction. It’s also because most people just don’t give a damn as long as their beer & gas are cheap.

: Would just saying “we have the cheapest beer and gas in the world” be good enough, or would the beer and gas actually have to be inexpensive?

Reader: I think in this case reality needs to match fantasy for it to work.

: So there are some wants at least that can’t be deflected into a fantasy world. How do we get the desire to be good or not to be a participant in mass murder into that category?

Reader: I think people have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about the bad stuff the government does with their money. “But what happens when they’re told?” you ask, and I respond, “they write it off as the ranting of a sissy liberal.”

: Well, if inexpensive gas matters, and just being able to say “this gas is inexpensive” without it actually being true isn’t good enough, then the way you respond to that is to actually investigate and find out what the price of gas is. You don’t wait for some activist to point it out to you.

Reader: But gas is cheap. That takes very little research to verify.

: Neither does “I am/am not acting like an asshole.”

Reader: I’ll bite — how does one know if one is acting like an asshole?

: “Hey, why don’t I drop my flavorless bubblegum here on the sidewalk? Woah, that would make me an asshole and I don’t want to be an asshole, ergo I won’t do it.” A psychopath, on the other hand, says “I will throw my gum on the sidewalk. This will make me an asshole. Hurray for that.” I’m worried about the third class of people who say, “I will throw my gum on the sidewalk. I don’t want to be an asshole. My throwing the gum on the sidewalk doesn’t make me an asshole because… uh, it never happened… or, well, it slipped out of my fingers… or, uh, well, there’s a lot of gum already on the sidewalk so one more piece won’t matter… or, well, nobody saw me do it, so…”

Reader: A person acting like an asshole and a nation acting like an asshole are two entirely different things. If the average Joe has little to no interest in politics, and so doesn’t know any better, why would he think that his country is acting inappropriately? Gas, after all, is cheap.

: I dunno; I think it starts at the individual level. If you don’t have respect for the truth or reality vis-a-vis your own actions and how you evaluate them, you’re going to be willing to fall for a well-worded and appealing fantasy description of your nation’s actions too.

Reader: I think we’re starting to talk past each other. Are you basically saying that one has to be immoral (or an asshole, to use the vernacular) to believe in one’s country?

: That’s not what I meant. What I’m saying is that if you use bad-faith fantasy evasions to justify your own behavioral deviations from your ideals, you will be more willing to accept the same sort of bad faith reasoning if it is applied to the actions of your country. If your country is doing something you can be proud of and you’re proud of it, what’s there to complain about? But if your country is doing something you’d be ashamed of if you admitted it was happening, and so you deny that it’s happening so you can continue to say you’re proud of it, that sucks.

Reader: What’s a “bad-faith fantasy evasion?”

: Something like the gum-thrower saying “well, there’s a lot of gum down there” or “my gum is particularly brightly-colored so people will see it and be able to step around it” or “it just slipped out of my fingers” or “nobody saw me do it.”

Reader: Ah. Well what if you’re someone who would be ashamed of your country if you knew the truth, but you just aren’t very politically aware?

: Well, there’s not being aware and then there’s sticking your fingers in your ears and yelling “LA LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU LA LA LA LA.”

Reader: I honestly believe that a lot of folk simply are not all that politically savvy. They buy what the talking heads say because the American history classes taught them everything they need to know to be proud of their country and that’s enough for them.

: What sort of pride in your country is it if it’s based on not looking too closely? “Son, I’m very proud of the way you played tonight.” “But you weren’t even at the game, Dad!” “Yes, but I’m sure you did very well.”

Reader: Are you searching for some magic flip-switch?

: Yep. I’m sure it’s around here somewhere. Where did I put the magic flip-switch?

Reader: It just doesn’t seem likely to me. Barring some sort of major disaster, nothing’s likely to cut through the haze on a national level. On a person by person basis, maybe, sure.

: So I shouldn’t lose sleep over not having found the magic switch, is what you’re saying? I think you’re right — it has to be person-by-person. You apply ethical standards to yourself first — not a particular set of Thou Shalt Not morals, but just an agreement with yourself that if you catch yourself hiding behind some bad faith baloney you’ll stop and confront yourself honestly about it. Then you start expecting the same from people around you. If enough people see the value in this, suddenly when a politician goes “blah blah blah” it won’t work anymore. I’m no saint, but every day I try to be a little more honest with myself and I think that’s valuable.

Reader: In general, I like to believe that I live that kind of life. Granted, I own an SUV and I pay taxes that support a foreign policy agenda I disagree with.

: Ask yourself why you own an SUV and why you pay taxes, and throw out all of the bullshit reasons that only sound good because you know they’d work on the talk shows. Then you’ll either find out that sure enough you’ve got a set of values that don’t conflict with taxpaying and SUV-owning or you’ll find out that you’re doing those things against your own best interests.

Reader: Perhaps. I believe that there are a lot of good folk out there whose worst crime is not flexing their critical thought muscle. There are plenty of good people who simply don’t do the research. That doesn’t make them bad people.

: Nobody’s omniscient. That’d be a ridiculous standard. But there’s ignorance, and then there’s “willful ignorance” which is one of those bad faith things, one of the easiest and worst. It played big at Nuremberg. “Why, I had no idea all those Jews were being butchered!” “800,000 of them disappeared from the region you administered. Did you ask where they went?” “Didn’t occur to me.” “Page 1234 of Mein Kampf talks about what Hitler planned to do to the Jews. Did you read it?” “Well, everybody read it, but…”

Reader: Again, I think cheap beer & gas is the problem. If the problems were in our backyard, matters would be addressed, methinks.

: Sure, people might start getting up in arms if the economy takes another bad tumble, or Iraq gets much worse, or inflation goes crazy or whatever. But what good is something like that? If people just trade their unthinking “everything is great” blinders for another set of blinders, we’re no more likely to be better than worse off in the aftermath of their agitation.

Reader: Yep. They’ll be complacent again once the dust settles.

: You gotta start with the individual, again. “Hey you, got any idea of what a good person is? Wanna be a good person? Okay, first thing you gotta do is keep an eye on yourself and see if you’re acting like a good person or an asshole. When you start acting like an asshole, stop, then back up and be straight with yourself about where you went wrong. Lather, rinse, repeat.” The gospel according to The Picket Line. Thank you, and please tip the folks who brought the loaves and fishes.