“Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer; nothing is more difficult than to understand him.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Ever since the end of World War II, documentarians have been fascinated by Hitler. As images of horror found their way around the world, the public was shaken by the scale of human depravity. Pile upon pile of human twisted bodies rotting in the sun rattled our confidence in the basic goodness of humanity. So the world consumed these documentaries hoping beyond hope that this evil had an explanation.
Beyond the grainy gray images of his victims led to slaughter and scenes of battlefield carnage, the documentarians attempted some explanation of Hitler, the man. They pursued an understanding of his upbringing, and the circumstances of a belittled Germany, and pondered his considerable rhetorical skills. They looked for any glimmer that might lead them to how one man could bring the world such misery.
Some World War II documentarians were deeply perplexed by how the entire German people appeared to look the other way while its political leadership killed millions of their neighbors. They asked deeply uncomfortable questions.
From the dozens of documentaries I have viewed, not one interviewed expert suggested the blame lie with the tools of mass murder- the guns, the poisonous gases, or the withholding of food. We would have quickly seen through that as a pathetic attempt to justify the actions of a pathologically evil madman.
After all the analysis, few could offer illumination of Hitler’s nature without concluding that ‘evil’ must indeed exist- an evil that cannot be explained away by mere life circumstances, however dysfunctional. Or severe psychological aberrations even if given a label. Some suggest that he was demonic and that humanity is indeed capable of such deep depravity as to snuff the living juices out of millions, or nineteen fourth graders, or one innocent traveler standing at a subway station. The depth of that black hole is so dark as to be unfathomable.
Equally unfathomable is the depth of despair a parent must endure watching a pint-sized coffin containing their precious child slowly lowered into the ground. The longest goodbye will have no bottom- the pain will be endless.
Good historical documentarians look for an understanding of some of our most perplexing events. When equilibrium is reached and normality resumes, they critically look back and ask questions, gather up images and stories, and seek to provide insight. They provide useful context to the mayhem the world just endured. Desperately, we look for something useful, anything, that will provide clues as to how we might, just maybe, make wars and mass murders comprehensible. Then ‘normal’ can resume. Best we not hold our breath.
“Remember that all through history, there have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they seem invincible. But in the end, they always fall. Always.” Mahatma Gandhi
Evil, as expressed by the random killing of the innocent, understandably produces an impulse to outrage. Today, our collective reflexive jerk shakes us towards the pursuit of immediate justice, including the indictment of the tools of our evil- the gun. Perhaps, if more patient, a ‘documentarians’ view, that of asking critical questions and seeking insight into the complexity of our dysfunction, might provide understanding and solutions. If the current knee-jerk reactionary response to the latest mass killing is any indication, we have grown weary or lazy in attempting to understand the pathology of those who kill the innocent. Or to contemplate the very notion of evil itself.
A serious complicating factor in solving our problems is the inclination of our politicos to use national tragedies to cynically divide us. With a ‘never let a tragedy go to waste,’ mentality, those who pine for power seek to ignite our passions for political gain. Even Hollywood types clamor atop soap boxes claiming the solution simple- it is the guns that are evil- ban them. And if enough political desperation exists, then be damned with the consequences.
Yet, some of these politicians, the ones suggesting the defunding of police and the neutering of our criminal justice system, grow alarmed when a fearful populace goes about arming themselves for their own personal protection. Future documentarians may ask what happened to a once-great society when its leaders no longer consider the security and safety of its people paramount. When we feel threatened or unsafe, we will naturally and intelligently seek the means and methods necessary to make us feel more secure. We are nearly all embued with a strong will to survive and when we come to doubt the capability or will of government institutions to provide for our security, we will seek to do it ourselves.
Today, this progressive secular reflex is to blame the tools of our despotism. They wish us to suspend logic and simplistically conclude that it’s the gun that metaphysically pulls the trigger. So we fixate on guns and characterize them using the most inflammatory words possible. One could add the word ‘assault,’ which means to make a physical attack, to nearly anything and make it more ominous. Assault gun. Assault knife. Assault fists. When having my head held underwater, the water ‘assaulted’ me.
US Gun Sales over time
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Adding to this reflex is an impulse to stereotype gun owners by smugly asking, “Who needs a firearm?’ What sort of person enjoys killing a deer or a duck? Neadrathals!” they arrogantly conclude, never considering that long ago, relatives depended on hunting and gathering for their very existence. Unfortunately, Amazon didn’t deliver to the front door in the old days, so the deer at the edge of the woods was dinner for a week. The ‘kill’ provided for his family and insured another generation. Perhaps nature’s disposition toward hunting/gathering for some hasn’t been entirely extinguished by video games and mindless social media interactions. Just maybe our instinctual wiring allows for some to enjoy the ‘hunt.’ If curious, look at the nature of most video games today. It’s all about the ‘hunt!’
There is perhaps an explanation for this phenomenon of blaming the tool and not the evil intent. ‘Evil’ is mostly a spiritual term. It is rooted in long-held religious beliefs that there exists a dark shadow to human behavior. A capacity to both good and evil. And that evil is not simply a way to explain how neurons misfire or the chemical imbalances in our brain. Nor is evil a psychological prognosis- a result of a genetic predisposition or a dysfunctional upbringing, or having been bullied or jilted by a love lost.
But we live in our new age of woke enlightenment that demands only physical organic explanations and immediate justice. To many, to accept the concept of ‘evil’ would force contemplation of its spiritual beginnings. A confrontation with notions of heaven and hell and demons and antique ideas sends shivers up the reflexive spine. They wish not to think our considerable modern pathologies to have any spiritual explanation. So they demand simplistic answers by holding up signs that say ‘Bullets are Not School Supplies’ and tyrannically demand the confiscation of all guns.
Seattle Times Photo
Few lives have been as thoroughly dissected as that of Hitler. Yet, I have never heard a behavioral psychologist suggest a past behavior correlation that might accurately predict a man capable of exterminating six-million people. I sincerely doubt, had a brain dissection been possible, a microscope would have picked up the shreds of a mangled synapse or a traumatized cranial region that would explain the depth of hatred and resentment necessary to cause such misery. We are left pondering the very reality of demonic forces. Is there a Satan?
Hitler, Jeffrey Dahlmer, the son of Sam- were often described as demonic. To carry out their evil intentions, one used gas, the other knives, and the third used a gun. Evil doesn’t much care what tool is used.
The young boys, mostly white, who sought some resolution to their emotional torment by shooting up their schools have been carefully scrutinized as well. Psychological profiles have been produced. Expert opinions have been offered. Another documentary will be produced.
Like all the documentaries on Hitler, we’ll watch ‘School Shooters- the documentary’ too. Acts of evil capture us. We stand, alone, looking down in somber silence, attempting some plausible understanding. Empty, we saunter back to our easy chair and big screen TV, knowing the next one is just around the commercial break. After the breaking news breaks, they will focus their cameras on the yelling and clamoring and sign-waving of those who seek immediate action against the injustice from the equally helpless. Perhaps we should look up.
Few individuals have explored man’s capacity toward evil as has Fyodor Dostoyevsky, arguably the world’s greatest novelist. He understood how desperately small evil makes us. He understood the confused logic of those who’d claim God is not possible as a good God would not allow such depravity. He also believed that humanity's capacity to understand evil was limited. He believed that in time, it will all become knowable.
I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world's finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, for all the blood that they've shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.