Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
Joseph Conrad wrote in his book Heart of Darkness: “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”
Likewise, Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, “Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer; nothing is more difficult than to understand him.”
As I struggle to understand President Trump and his criminal administration and cult followers in regard to the epic disaster of Coronavirus 19 in the United States, his unabashed authoritarian actions in destroying the guardrails of the Constitution and our Institutions, his open and flagrant disregard for law and the unwritten norms that have helped preserve and protect our resilient yet fragile system of government which depends on the constitutional separation of powers and the need for compromise in order to keep us from falling in into an authoritarian and yes, Fascist dictatorship. He has so corrupted the institutions charged with preserving the rights and liberties of our people, regardless of their political party, race, ethnicity, religion or lack thereof, and turned the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security into instruments of domestic terror that it boggles the mind. Despite all Trump has done to corrupt and poison the American political system, he has done little to take his terror abroad, although he seldom speaks up when other authoritarian rulers use their power to kill and imprison their opposition.
The fact is that the current American President is a serial liar, adulterer, business failure, deceiver, swindler and grifter who has no respect for our ideals as written in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the laws enacted by Congress and upheld by the Supreme Court. But those are just the surface issues, for honestly he is an evil man who could care less about the life of any American, even his followers. The fact is that President Trump is a malignant narcissistic sociopath and open racist who only cares about himself, his power, and his wealth that the lives of people don’t matter to him. Property and businesses yes, but victims of racism and violence committed by Police officers, or right wing racist and fascist individuals or groups don’t matter to him, because they are sub-human criminals who don’t deserve to live as equals in this country. That was never more on display than several times this year after Numerous Black men including George Floyd of Minneapolis who had a police officer who happened to work with him as a club bouncer, kneeled with his knee across Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, despite Floyd’s plea that he couldn’t breathe before he died. Before that there was Brianna Taylor, a paramedic and EMT in Louisville who had her home invaded by Louisville Police and was dunned down. Last week it was the turn of another Black Man, this time Jacob Blake who was shot seven times in the back by a white police officer who was holding on to his shirt as Blake attempted to get in his car with his three young children. Blake survived but will most likely be crippled for life. There are hundreds of other incidents of police brutality and killings of Blacks and other minorities over the past several decades. Then there are the killings committed by White Supremacists at Black churches, Jewish Synagogues, Islamic Mosques, Sikh Temples, people protesting Confederate monuments and other locations which do not seem to even register in President Trump’s perverted soul. It seems to me that many, if not most Americans do not want to believe that any American President is capable of the commission of gross and unspeakable crimes or approve of them. Trump may not be the first of such men, as we can go back much father, but as President he is the worst, even topping Andrew Johnson in that category of racist criminals, and yes both were impeached, but not removed from office.
So how did we as Americans get to such a place where such a criminal, scofflaw, and unrepentant racist could not only be elected to office, but could based on inflaming the fears of white people could be re-elected. I find that interesting because of something that Gustave Gilbert, an American Army Psychologist assigned to watch over the Major Nazi War Crimes Defendant’s at Nuremberg came to see. He wrote about a truth that we cannot see in President Trump and his cohort of racist cult followers. Gilbert wrote:
“In my work with the defendants (at the Nuremberg Trails 1945-1949) I was searching for the nature of evil and I now think I have come close to defining it. A lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants, a genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow men. Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.”
That absence of empathy is common to Trump and the vast majority of his White Christian supporters. The evidence is show in almost every poll, 80-90% of them see nothing wrong in what he is doing and has done. Personally, after having been a Republican for more than half of my life I cannot imagine just how low the GOP has sunk under Trump’s authoritarian leadership. When I left the GOP in 2008 after returning from Iraq, I refused to belief that the party could abandon all principle and support a man with no moral center, no integrity, and no loyalty to family, wives, children, his employees, his investors, or the country.
I honestly believe that one of our greatest problems in the United States is to believe the myths of our nation being a light to the world, our manifest destiny, as well as the twin myths that have shaped us since Reconstruction, the myth of the Noble South, and the myth of the Lost Cause. Likewise the racist crimes committed against committed against almost every immigrant group going back to the Irish and Germans, Then the southern and Eastern Europeans, the Jews, the Japanese, the Chinese, Filipinos, those of Mexican or Latin American Descent, and yes Arabs regardless of their religious beliefs, and last but not least the genocide committed by our English ancestors and our own genocide and confinement to reservations of the descendants of America’s First Nation, more commonly called Native Americans, tend to be minimized by almost all of White America, as well as by other minorities who simply don’t know about the crimes committed by our nation against every Original Nation since the English landed at Jamestown in 1607. We tend to show little empathy for others, especially those darker than us.
Malcom X said something very appropriate, and which if you have not experienced poverty, and discrimination, you may find it hard to empathize with the plight of American Blacks. The often misunderstood Civil Rights leader said: “The American Negro never can be blamed for his racial animosities – he is only reacting to four hundred years of the conscious racism of the American whites.” What we tend to forget is that such treatment in Europe brought many English, Scots, Irish, Germans, and others to the United States, where their descendants emulated the behaviors of their ancestor’s oppressors, especially towards Blacks who many believed were sub-human, the same term used by the Nazis to describe the Jews. Think about if you or I were the products of such longstanding, pervasive, and institutionalized discrimination, how would you feel or what would you do? If you cannot answer the same as Malcom X, then you will never understand.
One of our chief problems is that we want to believe that evil is simply done be evil people, especially the leaders of enemy nations, because we cannot abide the reflection that we see when we look in the mirror and see our own crimes committed at home and abroad, once again proving that for much of our national existence we have had little empathy for the victims of slavery, the wars against our First Nations, which included biological warfare, and the forced marches of them from their ancestral homelands to desolate lands, which once we found contained gold, silver, or oil, we took back from them, despite our treaty obligations. I could go on to our conquests and geographical expansion against weaker opponents like Mexico, Spain, and the relatively newly independent nations of Central American and the Caribbean. It was no wonder that Ulysses Grant in his memoirs wrote of the conquest of Mexico:
“Generally, the officers of the army were indifferent whether the annexation was consummated or not; but not so all of them. For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day, regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.”
That is why when we see a Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, or the monsters of the so-called Islamic State, we are often strangely comforted, because we cannot see ourselves in them. This is often because we We look abroad we can point to a single person with a wicked ideology and proclaim that “they are evil!” all the while forgetting that they are, or were, like us, also human. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn reminds us of the folly of that type of thinking:
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
A few years ago I took a break from my Gettysburg studies and writing and dusted off an old academic paper dealing with the one of the more uncomfortable aspects of the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews. I did that because I felt that I needed to reexamine the nature of evil in the modern world. Since that time I have gone back, done more study, more writing, and made more visits to locations of Nazi evil. I was not able to do so this year because of Europe’s well reasoned travel ban on Americans due to the incomprehensible
When I ponder the evil committed by supposedly civilized men and women of Germany, I realize that they are little different than others who incompetence and insipid evil of the Trump Regime regarding COVID19 share the immoral culture of the West. These people were the products of a culture of learning, and of science. They were part of a culture formed by the Christian tradition, the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment, the age of Reason. As I pondered this I came to remember something said by the late Iris Chang, “civilization is tissue thin.”
Lynching in the American South
That series of articles about the Einsatzgruppen dealt with the ordinary men, and the bureaucratic systems that implemented an ideology so twisted and evil that it is unimaginable to most people. In fact even in the Nazi system the majority of the genocide was not committed in the death camps, but up close and personal by men standing over pits with pistols, rifles, and machine guns.
While most people in the United States know a little about the Holocaust, most do not fully comprehend how devilish and insidious the crimes of the Nazis were. More frightening is the fact that in a 2015 survey 46% of people worldwide have never heard of the Holocaust, and of the 54% who are aware of it some 32% think it is a myth or has been greatly exaggerated. The numbers will only get worse as we become farther removed from these events and the survivors, witnesses, and perpetrators die off. The same is true for other genocidal acts.
We typically know about the extermination camps like Auschwitz, but the lesser known dark side of the Holocaust, perhaps the scariest part, is the story of the men of the Einsatzgruppen. The Einsatzgruppen and affiliated units, including those of the Wehrmacht, the Waffen SS, the mobilized battalions of the Order Police, and locally recruited units, rounded up massive numbers of people and killed them up close and personal. In all these units murdered over two million people, about 1.3 million of whom were Jews.
My study of the Holocaust began in college as an undergraduate. My primary professor at California State University at Northridge, Dr. Helmut Haeussler had been an interpreter and interrogator at the Nuremberg trials. I was able to take a number of lecture classes from him a large amount of research and independent study courses in a year of graduate work while finishing my Army ROTC program at UCLA. It was an immersion in the history, sociology, and the psychology of evil, during which I was able to meet and talk with Jewish survivors of the Holocaust.
Einsatzgruppen and Ordungspolizei in Russia
Since then I have continued to read and study. I lived in Germany for over four years, and made many other visits, during which I went to a number of Concentration Camp sites. I visited the rebuilt synagogue in Worms which had been destroyed during the infamous Kristallnacht, and other museums and Holocaust memorial sites in Germany. I visited the Zeppelin field, the site of Hitler’s massive Nazi Party rallies in Nuremburg, as well as the graveyards which contain the victims of other Nazi crimes, including the Nacht und Nebel or night and fog actions, where people simply disappeared and were murdered by the Gestapo.
For me, those visits were sobering, maybe even more so because I understood exactly what happened in those sites. These are uncomfortable places to visit, and I can understand why many people would not want to visit them, or even study them.
The darkness that they remind us of is a part of our human condition. Traces of the evil on display in those places is present in every human being. Frankly, most people cannot bear looking into that abyss, for fear that they might be swallowed by it.
I can understand that and I have to admit that it is hard to do so. I am a historian as well as a clinician with much experience dealing with death and trauma. With my training I do a pretty good job of keeping my emotional distance to maintain objectivity when confronted with evil. However, it is hard for me not to have some emotional reaction when visiting these places, or reading about the events and people, and in writing about them.
Likewise, I am very troubled by the growing lack or awareness or denial of the Holocaust. It is very hard for me not to have a virulent reaction when I see books and websites dedicated to Holocaust denial, or that minimize other well documented genocides, and crimes against humanity.
Soviet Mass Killings in Ukraine
My sensitivity to human suffering and the terrible indifference of people in this country to it was greatly increased by my experience of war, and my post-war struggles with PTSD, depression, anxiety, which at points left me very close to committing suicide. A non-chaplain friend, a now retired Navy Command Master Chief Petty Officer that I served with at my last duty station recently remarked that I am a tremendously empathic person, and that I have a large capacity to feel the pain and suffering of others. This capacity for empathy and the ability to feel the suffering of others is part of who I am. It is a good thing, but it makes my work studying and writing about the Holocaust, other genocides, crimes against humanity, and subjects like American slavery, racism, and Jim Crow a sometimes difficult and often very emotionally consuming task. This sometimes leaves me even more sleepless and anxious than normal; especially when I see the indifference of so many people to the suffering of others today.
The Killing Fields
It is that indifference which motivates me to write; because if these events are not recalled and retold, they, like any part of history will be ignored and then forgotten. The statistics bear this out. There are people today, who say that we should stop talking about these events, that they are old news, and they cannot happen again; but history tells us different, and not just the Holocaust, but indeed every genocide. Then there are those who shamelessly use the Holocaust imagery to spread fear among their followers even as they openly demonize minority groups and religions as the Nazis did to the Jews.
I have to agree with the late Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel who said, “Indifference to me, is the epitome of all evil.”
The late Iris Chang, who wrote The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II wrote something that is pertinent to almost every modern episode of genocide, or other crime against humanity. It is the ability of leaders, be they political, military, or religious to convince people to rationalize actions that they normally would find repulsive.
“After reading several file cabinets’ worth of documents on Japanese war crimes as well as accounts of ancient atrocities from the pantheon of world history, I would have to conclude that Japan’s behavior during World War II was less a product of dangerous people than of a dangerous government, in a vulnerable culture, in dangerous times, able to sell dangerous rationalizations to those whose human instincts told them otherwise.”
There are many other such events that we could note; the American decimation and genocide committed against native American tribes that spanned close to two centuries, the 1915 Turkish genocide of Armenians, the Rwandan genocide of 1994, the Serbian atrocities in Bosnia and Kosovo, the Chinese Communist “Great Leap Forward,” the actions of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and the more recent but seldom discussed action of the Myanmar government and military against its Rohingya Muslim minority.
What we call civilization, to use the words of Iris Chang, is tissue thin. That is why we must never forget these terrible events of history, and that part of human nature, and in a sense part of every one of us, that makes them so easy to repeat. That is why we must periodically take the time to remember and reflect on the Holocaust, other genocides and crimes against humanity.
It is even more important now with the rise of fascist, nationalist, and racist regimes around the world. Even in the United States these demons of the past, racism, nationalism, and fascism have come out into the open as those who believe in them have become emboldened by the words of President Trump and members of his administration.
In fact in trying to clean up his inaction after the violence committed by neo-Nazis and KKK sympathizers in Charlottesville the President first equated the Nazis and Klansmen with the people that they attacked and under pressure made a speech condemning the Nazis and Klansmen. According to Bob Woodward, when a Fox News correspondent said that was an admission that he was “almost an admission that he was wrong.” The President exploded at Rob Porter, the aide who convinced him to make the speech: “That was the biggest fucking mistake I’ve made,” the President told Porter. “You never make those concessions. You never apologize. I didn’t do anything wrong in the first place. Why look weak?” A few days later the President returned to the subject and again made the argument of moral equivalence.
Coupled with so many of the President’s words and policies directed against Blacks, Mexicans and Central Americans, Arabs, Africans, and others; as well as his attacks on the First Amendment and his praise and defense of cold blooded dictators around the world one has to take it more seriously.
This is not an issue that simply lurks in the past, it is a very real part of the present. Historian Timothy Snyder wrote:
“The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.”
Yes, these are terribly uncomfortable subjects, but we cannot allow this generation to allow them to be forgotten, lest they be repeated. That is why that I must continue to write about them and do my best to make sure that they are not forgotten as we cannot afford to let them happen again.