On What We Can Become – Thoughts Prompted by Mike and the “Lucifer Effect.”

Mike’s comment on the “Lucifer Effect” reminded me of thoughts I have been having over the past several years on the impact of good literature on helping us understand ourselves, the law, and each other. I have been writing these down and in my books and articles. I have expanded upon them in works currently in progress or at press.

Herman Melville’s genius helps us to understand our tendency to hate and to demonize “the other” as “the enemy,” as a means to compensate for our own frustrations, neuroses, and general inadequacy to cope.

“All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.” Herman Melville, Moby Dick (1851).

Melville’s lovely and powerful novel provides a prism through which we can see our own potential for destructive rage, which may blind us, preventing us from placing limits on our own conduct or even seeing our conduct as being evil. He makes us look at ourselves and face our potential for evil. Melville’s insight penetrates to the core of the major danger facing many societies today. He allows us to sense how values, morals, and “the law” can be manipulated to cause feelings that produce bile, fear, and hatred, which prompt actions that actually erode the very values claimed as the cause for the action. Sometimes a group is manipulated to feel a certainty that all truth, right, justice, or God reside with them. This manipulation may prompt evil action. Indeed, even the sense that one must act in certain ways to protect his or her group can be manipulated. Evil erupts, if the opportunity arises.

Another masterful work that has had a tremendous influence on me is Primo Levi’s “The Drowned and the Saved.” Levi’s idea of what it means to be human is poignant and radiant. Levi wrote that he was “trying to answer the most urgent question: How much of the concentration camp world is dead and will not return ….? How much is back and is coming back? ….” As you know, Levi was a survivor of Auschwitz in 1944, who eventually committed suicide (or so most believe) by falling down the deep center of the circular stairwell of his apartment building. It seems that his torture continued throughout his life and included the haunting and terrifying question: why do otherwise good people allow themselves to commit or to acquiesce to the commission of the most heinous acts?

In the face of terrorism or crimes against humanity, fear may become rage and people turn to vengeance. Fear is easily manipulated into rage. This causes what Albert Camus called an ugly, infernal dialectic–a self-destructive death dance. See Albert Camus, Appeal for a Civilian Truce in Algeria (lecture given in Algiers, Feb. 1956), reprinted in Albert Camus, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death 131 (J. O’Brien trans., 1960; Albert Camus, Reflections on the Guillotine, essay, in id., at 174, 198; Albert Camus, Neither Victims Nor Executioners (D. MacDonald trans., 1972). Leaders with a melodramatic bent, blind their adherents to any humanity on the other side. The people are made to believe that they are fighting the devil himself, and that all truth is being destroyed. We demonize, using terms like:

Humans easily fall into the trap of being manipulated to demonize “others,” calling them “terrorists,” “evil-doers,” or other villainous epithets to generate hatred and to justify criminal acts against them. This was not lost on Adolf Hitler, who, in his Mein Kampf, referred to Germany’s failure in World War I, as being in part due to not having sufficiently utilized this propaganda tactic of “making monsters of their enemies” in the eyes of the German Volk.

Albert Camus, in his Appeal for a Civilian Truce in Algeria, describes this as falling into a miasma of evil, an “infernal dialectic that whatever kills one side kills the other too, each blaming the other and justifying his violence by the opponent’s violence. The eternal question as to who was first responsible loses all meaning then . . . [Can’t we] at least . . . refrain from what makes it unforgivable . . . . the murder of the innocent.”

These are a few of the thoughts I have put down in my recent book, Terrorism and Anti-Terrorism: A Normative and Practical Assessment (Martinus Nijhoff/Brill/Transnational publishers 2006), noted in the book section of this blog, and have developed further in speeches and articles in progress.