Tag Archives: hannah arendt

“The Coexistence of Normality and Bottomless Cruelty” Timothy McVeigh and the Terrorist Next Door

murrah bombing

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Just a short note to close out the work week. Amid all the political drama surrounding President Trump, James Comey, and the release of the Comey memos this week, one thing that was overlooked by most people was the anniversary of the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols in 1995.

I don’t think that I could ever forget the day. I was working as a hospital ER department chaplain where I worked a 3:00-11:00 shift and usually didn’t get to bed until one or two in the morning. I was also a Chaplain in the Army National Guard. Not long after I got up I turned on the news and was drinking my coffee when the news about the bombing flashed across the screen. I was stunned, especially when I found out that the bombers were Americans, and both former soldiers. I could not imagine American soldiers turning their hatred agains the government into an act of terrorism.

They killed 168 people, including babies and young children in the day care center were killed, hundreds of others wounded. McVeigh and Nichols were part of the anti-government so-called “militia” movement that still exists in parts of this country, of which the Bundy family, which occupied a Federal Wildlife Sanctuary in 2016 in order to bring about a revolt against the government is part.

Sadly, there are such people who would do the same today if given the chance. As this attack shows, most of them are not Islamic terrorists, but some are plain old Americans, people you might see in the grocery store or at the gas station. Some belong to the White Supremacist and Neo-Nazi Alt-Right, others to heavily armed self-appointed “militia” groups, and still others simply deluded followers of conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones. Members of all of these groups or movements have committed violent acts or have been stopped from doing so by the work of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.

What is scary is that almost all of them repeat the same words, thoughts and ideology that McVeigh wrote about before and after the attack. In the end McVeigh rationalized his violence and defended his actions, never showing any hint of remorse for his victims, they were simply collateral damage, and the children he killed, a distraction from his message. Those that interviewed him said that he seemed completely normal and it was hard for them to reconcile his normalcy with what he did and his attitude toward his victims.

Reading his words and what others observed about him reminded me of what the Israeli court psychologist who interviewed Adolf Eichmann noted about Eichmann. Hannah Arendt recounted it:

“The Israeli court psychiatrist who examined Eichmann found him a “completely normal man, more normal, at any rate, than I am after examining him,” the implication being that the coexistence of normality and bottomless cruelty explodes our ordinary conceptions and present the true enigma of the trial.” 

I find it sad to see others like McVeigh doing their damnedest to impugn the character, honor and work of the men and women of the FBI. Unfortunately they have found a friend in President Trump who impugns the honor, decency, and loyalty of the FBI, members of the Justice Department, and Federal Judges; not to mention his political enemies and the free press.

So let’s never forget the events of that terrible morning and remember that to paraphrase Arendt using McVeigh instead of Eichmann:

The trouble with McVeigh was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted or sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. 

Until tomorrow.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under crime, History, News and current events, Political Commentary, terrorism

A Sense of Foreboding: Trump, Fox News Propaganda and the Danger to the Republic

Screen_Shot_2018_02_19_at_10.16.04_AM

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I go to bed tonight with a sense of foreboding for our country and the world.

Hannah Arendt wrote: “When evil is allowed to compete with good, evil has an emotional populist appeal that wins out unless good men and women stand as a vanguard against abuse.

She was right. We are seeing a populist appeal that is embracing evil and it is happening before our very eyes.

I cannot shake the deep sense of foreboding I have regarding the country and the world as President Trump’s continues to attack the character of all that oppose him or simply want to ferret out the truth plethora of allegations concerning what appears to be treasonous activities by his closest advisers and his apparent attempts quashed with the acquiescence of a large number of Republican members of Congress.  There is something very wrong going on and it almost feels that I can see the disaster unfolding before it happens.

I am not the only one to notice, leading conservative writers, foreign policy experts, and constitutional scholars have pointed out the same things that I have been saying for over a year. I do try to be positive and to believe that things will work out for the best, but the more I observe the more my confidence in our leaders and for that purpose many of our people to do the right thing is diminished.

That being said I do not give in to the feelings of foreboding or intend give up without a fight. I want my country to live up to its ideals and I am concerned about the real world, our alliances, our environment, and especially the real threat to freedom posed by the unrestrained words and actions of our 45th President. He has proven that he has no regard for the Constitution, our laws, or simple human decency. With every tweet and remark he demonstrates that he believes that he is above the law. He demonstrates every trait of a sociopath incapable of empathy and capable of the greatest evil.

Since he had Attorney General Sessions fire former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe barely a day before he would have been able to retire, Mr. Trump has been on a rampage. In light of President’s twitter onslaught against Robert Muller and those appointed to investigate the likely treasonous activities of the President and his associates before and after his election, and the comments of his personal lawyer I am more convinced than ever that Mr. Trump will find a way to seize power. This may come in a Reichstag Fire moment where he, during a “national emergency” uses the powers given to the executive through standing Executive Orders, or legislated in the Patriot Act. Conversely he might do it with the help of his current GOP majority in Congress, even if it means that they doom themselves to irrelevance as a co-equal branch of government.

This itself is dangerous, but even worse is the poisonous and corrosive aspect of the President’s repeated lies, distortions, falsifications, and attacks on the Constitution, our laws, institutions, the free press, and individuals. The President not only uses his spokespeople and twitter account to do this, he uses the pundits of Fox News to do so. As such Fox has become nothing more than Trump’s personal propaganda ministry indoctrinating millions of gullible and desperate people to do his bidding. Arendt wrote about such behavior and its effect on people:

“In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. … Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”

I believe in a particular universal ideal enunciated in the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence that All men are created equal. Likewise I believe the words of the Constitution matter and that it is all of our obligation to labor to build “a more perfect union.” As such that I must continually stand for what is right, what is true, and what is enduring for that is the oath that I swore and have re-affirmed for over 36 years of military service.

I am more worried than ever about our democracy and I agree with Timothy Snyder who wrote:

“Democracy failed in Europe in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, and it is failing not only in much of Europe but in many parts of the world today. It is that history and experience that reveals to us the dark range of our possible futures. A nationalist will say that “it can’t happen here,” which is the first step toward disaster. A patriot says that it could happen here, but that we will stop it.”  

We Americans do not like to think that what has happened to so many other countries can happen here; and in fact I never used to believe that it could. I believed that our system of checks and balances and the nature of our institutions could weather any threat. Today I question if they will hold. I agree with Russian exile and Chess Grand Master Gary Kasparov who wrote:

“First of all, people here should understand that nothing is for granted. There were many warnings in the past, you know, but every time, Americans and Europeans—they believe that it’s like bad weather. It comes and goes. But the danger is real. I always want to quote Ronald Reagan, who said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” Now, probably, it’s not even one generation. Things can happen very quickly, because there’s so much power that comes in the hands of people who have very little affection for the values that make up the core of liberal democracy and the free world.” 

Because of that I believe that we must stand for principle and work for a new birth of freedom even as it seems that freedom itself is in danger due to the actions of the American President. We must stand or we will lose everything that generations of Americans as well as others have fought so hard to preserve, but it is difficult. As Max Boot wrote on Saturday:

“Trump is sucking a substantial portion of America into his Orwellian universe. The rest of us have to struggle simply to remember that war isn’t peace, freedom isn’t slavery, ignorance isn’t strength.”

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

2 Comments

Filed under History, nazi germany, News and current events, Political Commentary

The Contempt for Facts and the Power of those Who Fabricate Them

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

A Short thought to begin the weekend that kind of follows my posts of the last several days. Hannah Arendt wrote in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism this poignant fact and warning:

“Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.” 

In my life which now spans almost 58 years I have never seen an American political leader attempt to present a full-blown counter-factual narrative to support their desire for power; but that was before the presidential campaign and presidency of Donald Trump. This not only comes from watching the campaigns of various presidential candidates and the actions of those men who have gained the Presidency, but from my study of history. Yes, I have seen Presidents lie with varying degrees of success. I have seen politicians twist facts and numbers for specific ends, but I have never seen one do so on such a scale and magnitude as our current President; nor have I seen any President so boldly attack and attempt to discredit the institutions established as checks and balances in the Constitution.

Hannah Arendt’s words describe in terribly precise detail the kind of propaganda campaign that has been waged by the President and his advisers since the beginning of his Presidency, which is reinforced by his spokespeople on a daily basis. Arendt wrote: “The outstanding negative quality of the totalitarian elite is that it never stops to think about the world as it really is and never compares the lies with reality.” Arendt’s statement is very descriptive of this administration. I am going to leave things here for now.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

1 Comment

Filed under History, News and current events, philosophy, Political Commentary

Watershed Moments: Trump, Hope Hicks and the Problem of Truth

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

A watershed moment in the Trump administration occurred a few days ago. Longtime advisor and White House Communications Director Hope Hicks admitted telling “white lies” to protect the President to a Congressional committee. Shortly after she either voluntarily resigned or was forced to resign by an infuriated President. I have read accounts that indicate both. I lean to the latter, but I cannot say that without absolute certainty.

Over 1800 years ago the Roman Emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote:

“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”

When it came out last year I wrote a review of Timothy Snyder’s book  On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century and today I wanted to follow up on one of the key points made by Dr. Snyder in that work.

Snyder wrote: “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis to do so. If nothing is truth, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”  I have been worried about that since the 2016 election campaign where Snyder noted that seventy-eight percent of the claims and statements made by President Trump on the election trail were demonstrably false. Sadly, that has not changed, in his first year in office, as of the anniversary of Mr. Trump’s inauguration he had told over 2000 verifiable lies and distortions, that’s a rate of about six a day.

As Snyder noted the falsehoods during the election campaign came so fast that they were overwhelming, and they still are today. The assertions were presented as if they were the truth, as if they were fact, creating as Kellyanne Conway said, a world of “alternate facts” and “alternative truths.” Of course there are no such thing as “alternative facts” or “alternative truths” when it comes to the reality that we know. There may be arguments about things that we cannot fully observe or understand, such as the ultimate issues of whether there is a God or not, and if so what is true about him, her, or it; likewise there are things that change the way that we see the world such as when scientists make new discoveries.

But in neither case do these examples posit that there are alternative truth, there are things like God that cannot be proven, and there is a universe that we do not fully understand, but those have nothing to do with people who flagrantly lie about things that are commonly known and claim that the lies are the truth. Such claims are cynical and designed to ensure that those in power cannot be challenged, and when deployed by demagogues in a society in which fear has become an overriding factor, can be frighteningly effective. Thus when the President says “I alone can fix it” or “I am your voice” those who have lost the ability to think critically and who have surrendered to the unending mantras of the demagogue do not question them, they are not matters of reason, they are matters of faith.

Throughout the campaign Trump and his campaign surrogates not only twisted truth, but lied so many times that fact checkers could hardly keep up with their untruths. After the election, Trump surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes told Diane Rehm of NRP: “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, of facts,” she continued, “Mr. Trump’s tweet, amongst a certain crowd, a large — a large part of the population, are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some — in his — amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies, and there’s no facts to back it up.” The biggest problem in this interview was that Ms. Hughes lied and twisted what happened to fit the Trump campaign narrative that truth did not matter. The fact was that then candidate Trump’s tweets were devoid of fact and the criticism of them was based on fact.

I have written about how some people and parties present myths as truth, twisting history to meet their craven desire for power and control. This appeal to myth was the genus of the President’s campaign slogan “Make America great again.” Such slogans are the instruments by which demagogues in every place and time have used to not only gain power, but to convince people to do things that in normal times they would never consider doing.

Such propaganda campaigns are distortions of history that blind their followers to real truth, even worse, they compel people to never learn history and thus accept the lies as truth with all too often fatal consequences. Snyder calls this “the politics of eternity” which “performs a masquerade of history… It is concerned with the past, but in a self-absorbed way, free of any real concern with facts. Its mood is a longing for past moments that never really happened during epochs that were, in fact, disastrous.”

To the politicians who like the President rely on them, the past is “a vast misty courtyard of illegible monuments to national victimhood, all of them equally distant from the present, all of them equally accessible for manipulation. Every reference to the past seems to involve an attack by some mortal enemy upon the purity of the nation.” These are the basis for things like the Myth of the Lost Cause, and the Noble South, and the Stab in the Back.

This is dangerous distortion of history. George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But I think that Howard Zinn said it the best:

“History can come in handy. If you were born yesterday, with no knowledge of the past, you might easily accept whatever the government tells you. But knowing a bit of history–while it would not absolutely prove the government was lying in a given instance–might make you skeptical, lead you to ask questions, make it more likely that you would find out the truth.”

I cannot help but think that the rapidity of the lies, the incessant attacks on the institutions of our country’s democracy, and the rights established in the Constitution by the President, people in his administration, and his supporters, especially those in the Breitbart universe of alternative media, are nothing but an attempt to delegitimize those institutions in order to gain total control and establish some kind of authoritarian and totalitarian state.

The deluge of lies and distortions practiced by this administration and so many others who have taken power after being legally elected or appointed is designed to ensure that people no longer believe in truth. Hannah Arendt wrote: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction ( i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false ( i.e ., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

That is the very danger that we face today because many people, especially the President’s most stalwart and sometime violent defenders, as well as his enablers in Congress do not care, and others are so confused and distracted by the tactics of denial and deflection coming from the administration that they are growing weary. Polls show that many people are quite alright with limiting freedom of the press, freedom of speech, the role of the courts and other institutions designed to check executive power, and have no problem with limiting the rights of groups that they have identified as their enemy, and even limitations placed on their own freedom if it serves to absolve them of responsibility for things that they are too uncomfortable to deal with. The British military historian and theorist B.H. Liddell-Hart observed:

“We learn from history that in every age and every clime the majority of people have resented what seems in retrospect to have been purely matter-of-fact comment on their institutions. We learn too that nothing has aided the persistence of falsehood, and the evils resulting from it, more than the unwillingness of good people to admit the truth when it was disturbing to their comfortable assurance. Always the tendency continues to be shocked by natural comment and to hold certain things too “sacred” to think about.”

Believe me I desperately want to be wrong about this, but my study of history tells me that I am not. Thus I believe that every claim of the President and the administration must be questioned and its veracity determined, before it is accepted as truth. The time has come when we cannot simply wait to see what happens and give this administration the benefit of the doubt. Immediately after the election I was prepared to do that, but the actions of the President and his advisors have demonstrated to me that this is no longer an option. I will of course remain true to my oath under the Constitution, I will still respect the office of the Presidency, but I will always stand for the Constitution and defend those rights, and the institutions that are established by it.

Truth: historical, scientific, and verifiable is not our enemy. However, lies, and distortions, and the trampling of truth under the guise of “alternative truth,” “alternative fact,” and “alternative history” is the moral enemy of our republic and its democratic institutions. Thus truth must be upheld and fought for at all costs, because once you have sacrificed truth on the altar of political expediency you pave the way for freedom to be sacrificed.

Marcus Aurelius was right. The truth is not harmful but those who persist in self deception and ignorance can not escape harm. Hope Hicks placed her faith in Donald Trump, even being willing and able to lie for him, now she is firmly in the eye of the Muller investigation and will forever have her reputation tarnished by her work and support for President Trump. Sadly, there will be more.

So until tomorrow.

Peace

Padre Steve+

1 Comment

Filed under culture, ethics, History, News and current events, philosophy, Political Commentary

The Fragility of Human Behavior in the Crisis: When Civil Liberties End, Tyranny Begins

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In 1989 Donald Trump wrote in a full page advertisement in the New York Daily News“civil liberties end when an attack on our safety begins.” He said that in relation to the Central Park Five, five teenagers who were falsely accused and convicted of the rape of a jogger in Central Park. In 2002 after the real assailant confessed and his crime verified by DNA evidence. Despite the reality Mr. Trump has continued to speak to that issue and claim that the five falsely convicted and imprisoned men are guilty.

Mr Trump repeated expressed his anger that they did not receive the death penalty, something that by the way is not part of the law in any state. Since becoming President the Mr Trump has suggested all sorts of extrajudicial and unconstitutional remedies to crime. Today he suggested doing that to gun owners who could be considered potential mass murderers. He told a group of Congressmen and Senators, as well as his own Vice President Mike Pence: “You could do exactly what you’re saying, but take the guns first, go through due process second.”

Now personally I don’t think that’s such a bad idea, but it still is unconstitutional. Earlier in the week the President proposed the death penalty to all convicted drug dealers. Again, no love for drug dealers but the President doesn’t get to impose sentences, but the President praised the extermination methods that Philippine President Duterte uses not just to kill suspected drug dealers but political opponents and members of the press. Of course the President has long suggested the political opponents should be jailed and the Press is an “an enemy of the people.” 

As I have written over the past few days in discussing the Reichstag Fire I am very concerned that as the walls close in on the Trump Presidency, that as the Muller investigation implicates more and more of his advisors and quite possibly family members, that as members of his administration like Hope Hicks admit that they lied for him, that the danger to our Republic only rises. I am afraid that there will be a Reichstag Fire moment that will allow the President to through already existing Executive orders and laws to scrap constitutional liberties and establish an authoritarian state. It’s not so much that he has to be popular to do so, the fact is that under threat of attack that most Americans will surrender liberty for the illusion of security. That was demonstrated in 2002 when the Patriot Act, an act so revoltingly un-American and totalitarian in its implications was passed overwhelmingly by both houses of Congress with hardly any resistance.

That is what concerns me. Should a war break out, should there be a major terrorist attack, or anything that severely disrupts the country the mechanisms are in place for the President to declare the situation extraordinary and to take power. The thing is that no President has acted in such a way, but President Trump has repeatedly suggested violating the Constitution and praised foreign leaders like Dutarte, Putin, and Erdogan, men who all use such circumstances and laws to their advantage.

Timothy Snyder wrote:

“For tyrants, the lesson of the Reichstag fire is that one moment of shock enables an eternity of submission. For us, the lesson is that our natural fear and grief must not enable the destruction of our institutions. Courage does not mean not fearing, or not grieving. It does mean recognizing and resisting terror management right away, from the moment of the attack, precisely when it seems most difficult to do so. After the Reichstag fire, Hannah Arendt wrote that “I was no longer of the opinion that one can simply be a bystander.”

Of course Mr Trump has a hard core of loyal supporters who in his words would remain loyal to him “even if he shot someone on 5th Avenue.” Some are actually quite frightening, but in truth I am more frightened by the vast number of people in this country of every part of the political spectrum cannot tell the difference between fact and fiction or true and false, people how simply go along with the flow, especially in times of crisis.  Hannah Arendt, who saw the Nazi takeover of Germany in the beginning wrote:

“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

In a world such as the one that we live today it is those who simply go with the flow or are easily persuaded into accepting what in normal times they would not accept because the times are exceptional, or in a crisis believe what they are told and regardless of what happens to fellow citizens or neighbors turn their backs on injustice. Most are totally ordinary and unremarkable and are no different than so many others who committed terrible crimes against humanity and too part in genocide.

British Historian Laurence Rees wrote:

“human behavior is fragile and unpredictable and often at the mercy of the situation. Every individual still, of course, has a choice as to how to behave, it’s just that for many people the situation is the key determinate in that choice.” 

When people feel that a crisis makes a situation exceptional to the point that normal codes of conduct, social mores, laws, and ethics are Christopher Browning wrote in his book Ordinary Men:

“I fear that we live in a world in which war and racism are ubiquitous, in which the powers of government mobilization and legitimization are powerful and increasing, in which a sense of personal responsibility is increasingly attenuated by specialization and bureaucratization, and in which the peer group exerts tremendous pressures on behavior and sets moral norms. In such a world, I fear, modern governments that wish to commit mass murder will seldom fail in their efforts for being unable to induce “ordinary men” to become their “willing executioners.” 

My question is: when the crisis finally comes, what will Americans do?

I want to be hopeful. I am not a fatalist. I believe that we can all given the opportunity rise to greatness and defend our Constitution, civil liberties, and embody the principles of the Declaration of Independence. It has happened before. But that being said human history, especially the history of the past century shows us that more often than not that most people do not rise to the occasion. 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.”

In our time that is the most important consideration.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

1 Comment

Filed under History, nazi germany, News and current events, Political Commentary, world war two in europe

The Courageous Versus the Ideologues

7852066-12185069

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today is a bit of a detour following my last two articles dealing with the Reichstag Fire and Reichstag Fire Decree, but it does have some ties to them and I will pick up on the Reichstag Fire theme tomorrow.

Being an ideologue of any kind is easy, you adopt an ideology and then use it to interpret the world. That is why there are so many of them of so many different varieties: right wing, left wing, religious and so many more. In fact if you take a look at the most strident supporters of any ideology, politician, or religious leader you can see that they are little different from one another. But in terms of the ideologies they espouse the most enduring of them, and the only to have ever been the foundation of state power or those dealing with economics such as the Soviet Union; or race such as Nazi Germany or the American Southern Confederacy. Hannah Arendt wrote:

“For an ideology differs from a simple opinion in that it claims to possess either the key to history, or the solution for all the “riddles of the universe,” or the intimate knowledge of the hidden universal laws which are supposed to rule nature and man. Few ideologies have won enough prominence to survive the hard competitive struggle of persuasion, and only two have come out on top and essentially defeated all others: the ideology which interprets history as an economic struggle of classes, and the other that interprets history as a natural fight of races. The appeal of both to large masses was so strong that they were able to enlist state support and establish themselves as official national doctrines. But far beyond the boundaries within which race-thinking and class-thinking have developed into obligatory patterns of thought, free public opinion has adopted them to such an extent that not only intellectuals but great masses of people will no longer accept a presentation of past or present facts that is not in agreement with either of these views.” 

The fact is that there is a difference between people who lean a certain way politically or religiously, and the people Eric Hoffer called, the “true believers,” the people who chose a side and never wrestle with the hard choices of life. They simply declare all who oppose their ideology or theology to be unworthy of life.

I am a liberal and a progressive, but I often find left-wing ideologues to be as off putting as militant right wingers. I guess that is because despite everything I am a realist. I wake up every day to try to do the hard thing of deciding what is right and what to believe.

My favorite television character, Raymond Reddington, played by James Spader in The Blacklist once said “I know so many zealots, men and women, who chose a side, an ideology by which to interpret the world. But, to get up every single day and to do the hard work of deciding what to believe. What’s right, today? When to stand up or stand down. That’s courage.” The fact is, no matter how stridently they espouse their beliefs, ideologues are by definition not courageous, because courage takes critical thinking, something that ideologues of any persuasion are incapable of doing. I see examples of this every day, especially in my Twitter feed and on Facebook.

While I’m sure that many, if not most of these people are good and well meaning people, they seldom display any originality of thought or true character. I had one left wing Twitter follower attack repeatedly me because to her I was supposedly a sellout. I have had right wing religious friends and followers on social media do the same.  While they attack me and each other from different ends of the political spectrum, the intellectual commonality they share is the fact that they are ideologues and zealots; and while they espouse different beliefs they are almost indistinguishable from each other in their inability to think critically and that wears me out.

I guess that is one of the things that bothers me the most about so much of what I see going on in the United States today. Too many ideologues, not enough critical thinkers. Too many people who value absolute consistently of thought without asking if what they preach is still true today, or if it might be tomorrow.

One thing that I have learned over the past eight years or so is that I have to ask what is right today, and make a choice of when to stand up, or to stand down. Sometimes, I don’t like those choices, but I make them.

I guess that is why I like reading about the lives of complicated and often conflicted people; men like T.E. Lawrence, William Tecumseh Sherman, and the fictional Raymond Reddington. I find much to admire and to criticize in all of them even as I empathize and understand each one of them. Interestingly, each of my heroes all have feet of clay. As Reddington said, “We become who we are. We can’t judge a book by its cover… But you can by its first few chapters, and most certainly by its last.” 

Have a great day, until tomorrow.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

1 Comment

Filed under ethics, philosophy, Political Commentary

From Ordinary Men to Willing Executioners: Holocaust Remembrance 2018

1483285_10152114931522059_1612934841_n

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

We live in troubling times and I believe that we are at a point in world history where the not so distant specter of a horrifying past is is rising before our eyes and all too many people cannot see it.

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day. On that day seventy-three years ago the Soviet Red Army liberated the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, the centerpiece of the Nazi Death Camp machine. To be sure, in his panic to save his neck Heinrich Himmler had started in the Fall of 1944 began to switch from his tactic of extermination to using the Jews as bargaining chips., but by then most of the Jews under Nazi control were dead. Those that remained, emaciated and dying by the thousands to starvation, and unchecked disease, as they were marched in ghastly conditions to camps deeper inside Nazi controlled areas.

About this time last year two things happened in the United States that caused me to shake my head and wonder if we are becoming a place that will turn its eyes away from current atrocities, genocide, ethnic and religious cleansing, and walk away. Likewise they were events the presaged even worse.

Last year President Trump issued a proclamation to observe Holocaust Remembrance Day, a statement that did not mention the Jews. How one remembers the Holocaust without mentioning the Jews is beyond me, but some of the President’s advisers, including the now fired and disgraced Steve Bannon, are closely connected to the self-proclaimed Alt-Right, a movement of white supremacists and neo-Nazis looking for respectability. The second thing the President did was to issue an Executive Order halting the immigration of refugees from certain Muslim majority countries, and to cap the number entering. I’m not going to go into details about that but it is not the first time that the United States stopped refugees from entering the country on national security grounds, as in the 1930s and 1940s one of the reasons used to keep German Jewish refugees out of the country was exactly that, they might be Nazi spies and saboteurs.

But since those early days the President, members of his administration, members of Congress, and his supporters in the Right Wing media have increased the rhetoric of racism and race hatred. In addition to Muslims who has often insinuated are terrorists, or sympathetic to terrorists, the President has defamed and dehumanized whole classes of other immigrants, those from Africa, Central America, and the Caribbean as being from “Shithole countries.” Likewise, after Charlottesville, the President stated that neo-Nazis and White Supremacists are “very good people” and even though his son-in-law and daughter are Orthodox Jews he has frequently disparaged Jews in public and private.  Of course as so often is the case much of what the President is saying being sold under the label of Patriotism. Hannah Arendt wrote:

“The antisemites who called themselves patriots introduced that new species of national feeling which consists primarily in a complete whitewash of one’s own people and a sweeping condemnation of all others.”

The present day reminds us that this is a day that we should never forget. The horrors perpetrated by the Nazi regime, all in the name of “race purity” and the extermination of the Jews and others deemed by the Nazis to be “sub-human” or untermenschen is something that is hard for most to imagine.

A couple of years ago I read Bettina Stangneth’s book, Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer. While I am very well informed and educated on the lives, writings, actions, and statements of many of the Nazi war criminals, this new book on Eichmann is the most troubling that I have ever read. In particular it is the accounts of his writings and interviews with other pro-Nazi, or former Nazis in Argentina, particularly the Sassen Interviews, which span hundreds of hours of tape and thousands of pages of transcripts.

I am a Christian, a gentile, and a historian, as well as a nearly thirty-seven year military who served alongside our advisors and the Iraqis who fought alongside of us. I have lived in Germany, read, speak and write German and have many friends in that country, including members of the German military, retired and active duty.  My study and association with Holocaust survivors goes back to my college days at California State University Northridge when as an undergraduate history major I spent much of my time studying Germany from the first unification and the Kaiser Reich, the First World War, Versailles, Weimar and the Hitler Regime. My professor, Dr. Helmut Heussler, whose family left Germany in the late 1920s, served in the U.S. Army in World War II and was an interrogator at Nuremberg. I took a number of classes from Dr. Heussler, including Hitler’s Germany and the Holocaust. In the latter I had the chance to meet Holocaust survivor Mel Mermelstein, who was later played by Leonard Nimoy in the TV movie Never Forget. 

Since my college days I have continued to read and study, and to get a second Masters Degree in History in which much of my work dealt with the Nazi regime. I have visited the sites of former concentration camps including Dachau and Bergen-Belsen. I have been to the sites of the Nazi Party rallies in Nuremberg, the courtroom where the Nuremberg Trails were conducted and to the T4 Euthanasia complex at Hadmar. One day, God willing I will get to Auschwitz and some of the other sites.

The Nazis had begun their persecution of the Jews shortly after Hitler took power in 1933. Later in the year the Enabling Act gave Hitler and his henchmen the legal means to begin their persecution of the Jews and others. These were followed by the Nuremberg Laws and other laws that targeted the Jews. Persecution increased throughout the 1930s, and sadly most countries refused to accommodate increased Jewish immigration. Then came Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, when on 9-10 November 1938, a series of orchestrated attacks on Jewish businesses, Synagogues, institutions and individuals. On that night close to 200 synagogues, 7000 Jewish businesses and 29 major department stores were destroyed or damaged. Over 30,000 Jews, mostly men, were arrested and sent to concentration camps, 91 people were killed outright, and several thousand died in the aftermath.

mass killing einsatzgruppen

When the Nazis invaded Poland, its Jews were rounded up and placed into ghettos where many died of starvation and abuse even before the ghettos were liquidated and the people who lived in them were deported to the extermination camps. In 1941 as the German military seemed to be assured of victory in the Soviet Union the Nazis decided to exterminate the Jews of Europe. In the Soviet Union four Einsatzgruppen followed each of the German Army Groups and systematically began to massacre the Jews of every city and village which German soldiers captured. Over a million and a half Soviet Jews were killed by the Einsatzgruppen, Ordungspolizei battalions, Army Security Divisions and locally recruited units.

At the Wansee Conference of January 20th 1942 the specifics of the “Final Solution” were mapped out by Himmler’s number two man, SS General Reinhard Heydrich. What followed is beyond the comprehension of most people, but the perpetrators were for the most part men and women who were terrifyingly normal.

The truly terrifying thing about the Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust to me is that most of the men at Wansee, men that commanded the Concentration camps and the Einsatzgruppen were very ordinary men who simply believed that they were doing their jobs. Very few could be described as psychopathic killers by nature. They were lawyers, doctors, career police officials, businessmen, and bureaucrats who carried out an extermination campaign that killed by their own numbers between 5.5 and 6 million Jews, not to mention others deemed to be subhuman including the handicapped, the mentally ill, homosexuals, and other non-Jewish minorities like the Gypsies not to mention the wide variety of those considered political enemies. But it was the Jews that bore the most tragic fate.

When you read their writings, listen to them when they were interviewed, or watch footage of them during or after the war, you find that they had absolutely no empathy for their victims. When confronted about the evil that they engineered they invariably blamed their victims, just as many like them do today.

Most of the men who coordinated the massive effort to exterminate the Jews of Europe following the Wansee Conference of January 20th 1942 approached their jobs dispassionately. This was a common attitude among the civil service, military and police officials that oversaw the Holocaust. They simply did their jobs and followed the law, and for most of them, their victims meant nothing.

ChildrenBirkenau

Hungarian Jews being sent to Extermination Camps

Adolf Eichmann summed up the attitude of many when he said regarding his work to deport hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz in in just a few weeks during the fall of 1944, “Whether they were bank directors or mental cases, the people who were loaded on those trains meant nothing to me.” Speaking to Willem Sassen in 1957 Eichmann reveled in that accomplishment, “It was an achievement that was never matched before or since.” Eichmann also enjoyed leading his victims on, pretending that he might listen, and they might change his mind. Eichmann was proud of what he did. He told his staff, “I will leap into my grave laughing because the feeling that I have five million human beings on my conscience is for me a source of extraordinary satisfaction.”

Hannah Arendt wrote of Eichmann:

“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”

This was what made the Holocaust committed against the Jews of Europe by Nazi Germany a phenomenon different than other genocides. Many of the perpetrators were not driven by centuries old hate as in the Balkans, tribal blood lust as occurred in Rwanda, or the products of Soviet Communism or Communist Chines Maoist regimes, but a profoundly racial ideology.

dachaumorgue1945

It was the racial ideology of the Nazis which deemed the Jews and other non-Aryans to be sub-human. That ideology undergirded the German treatment of the Jews, and the conduct of the war, especially in the East. But the execution of the plan required the bureaucratic, administrative, technical and legal skills brought to the table by ordinary men. These were men who sought promotion, advancement, and economic security for their families. Individually many would have never killed, but they ran the rail networks, the factories, the banking and finance industries and supported the war effort, most not thinking much about the evil that they abetted or if they did finding a way, be it social, scientific, religious, patriotic, legal or simply in the name of efficiency.

Survivors of Auschwitz

That is what makes the evil committed by them so terrifying. It is the product of “normal” people in an advanced Western nation. Make no bones about it, their actions were evil. They aided and abetted the genocide of the Jews, the disabled, other “sub-human” races, particularly Slavs, as well as those that they deemed less than suitable. Sadly, human beings, even Americans have that same capacity to commit genocide.

I think that the most chilling thing about the Holocaust was that the greatest atrocities were committed by ordinary men, sometimes well educated, decent family men. These were men who simply executed orders and often went home at night. Arendt wrote that “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” She was right, there was an ordinariness to the evil perpetrated by the Nazis, at the same time there are those who consciously decide to participate in evil.

It is important that we do not forget the Holocaust. It is also important to recognize that the instruments of that horror were on the whole “ordinary” men who as they saw it were simply doing their job. It is something that everyone needs to remember. Bettina Stangneth wrote “Systematic mass murder is not just the sum of isolated instances of sadism but the result of a political thinking that is perverted from the ground up.”

So many of the perpetrators saw nothing wrong in what they were doing, in fact at his trial in Jerusalem Eichmann said, “To sum it all up, I must say that I regret nothing.”

The men and women who committed these crimes believed that their victims were less than human and like so many people even today, they had no empathy. Gustave Gilbert, an American Army Psychologist at the major War Criminal Trials at Nuremberg said it so well: “Evil is the absence of empathy.”

Today we have to be very careful. Christopher Browning wrote in his book Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Holocaust in Poland:

“I fear that we live in a world in which war and racism are ubiquitous, in which the powers of government mobilization and legitimization are powerful and increasing, in which a sense of personal responsibility is increasingly attenuated by specialization and bureaucratization, and in which the peer group exerts tremendous pressures on behavior and sets moral norms. In such a world, I fear, modern governments that wish to commit mass murder will seldom fail in their efforts for being unable to induce “ordinary men” to become their “willing executioners.” 

In such a world it is all too important that we never forget, especially now when we could be watching it begin all over again.

I’ll write more on this tomorrow.

Peace

Padre Steve+

1 Comment

Filed under civil rights, ethics, History, holocaust, nazi germany, News and current events, Political Commentary