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Friday, August 16, 2013

Meditation on Evil

Bernie and I just experienced two movies: Act of Killing and Hannah Arendt. Both deal concretely with the fact and meaning of evil. They both do what art at its best does. They so involve us that we are no longer mere spectators, but participants with our whole being, emotion and reason, heart and mind, body and soul.

Adolf Eichmann in his routinized indirect participation in the killing of millions of Jews in Nazi Germany and Anwar Congo in his direct personal killing of thousands who were considered communist because of opposition to the military coup d'état in Indonesia are worthwhile subjects of these movie mediations on Evil in today's world.

Then yesterday we metroed to the Corcoran Art Gallery and surveyed its compelling, sobering exhibit on War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and its Aftermath. There was a meditation room at the end where you could write a postcard and pin it to the wall. The messages were sad, yet hopeful. Aghast at our inhumanity, yet yearning for a peaceful and just human cosmos.

What Hannah Arendt, who has been my intellectual heroine for over fifty years, discovered in Eichmann was not a grand Satan, not a grotesque monster, not even an anti-Semite, but a man who sacrificed his own humanity on the altar of order and the prevailing morality. We discover with her a normal bureaucrat following orders without thinking. She called it the "banality of evil."

It is the "normality" of that evil that upsets us when it is named--as it did for many of the Jews who opposed Arendt's characterization. Because without thinking, without challenging our own morality and that of our religion and our nation, without questioning the beliefs and the rules by which we are behaving, we are complicit in the evil of dehumanization that is surrounding us daily in our cities, in our worship, in our economy, and in our politics.

What we discover with director Joshua Oppenheimer as we ride along with Anwar Congo and his colleagues, as they celebrate and are celebrated for the brutal slaughter of thousands of "communists" in pools of blood, are men who consider themselves free-men (their translation of "gangster") using the methods and morality found in American westerns and gangster movies. Anwar is a kindly grandfather excited to show his grandsons the movie he is making about his exploits in killing.

Only once, when he was acting the part of one of his victims, did Congo suddenly "feel" what his victims must have been feeling and question himself. That was a telling moment because it showed a diminished, suppressed, lost capacity asserting itself: empathy. Congo and his colleagues are like the Nazi soldiers who, carrying out the orders that Eichmann processed, jammed whole families into box cars and carted them to the killing fields, furnaces, and mass graves of camps--without daring to feel any connection to those they were slaughtering.

The capacities to think for oneself in solitude and to feel with others in community are linked. It is our ability to feel with persons dying on the battlefield, roasted by napalm, thrown from helicopters, lined up and shot, tortured in prison camps, wasting without limbs in hospitals, as portrayed in those photographs of war, that we question the policies, the orders, the morality that permits this.

Thinking and empathy are also the capacities (or are they the same?) that define human existence and that connect us to the human in all persons without boundaries. These inheritances, gifts of evolution or graces from God, however you want to conceive them, are what make us a "little more than beasts and a little less than angels." They are our way to transcendence, the act of passing beyond the beliefs that constrain us where we can move from the meditation on Evil to the contemplation of the Good.

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