These are the best of times for the worst of people. And for the toxic idea at the core of all the most murderous ideologies of the modern age. That idea is that human nature is, if not a fiction, at least so watery and flimsy that it poses no serious impediment to evil political entities determined to treat people as malleable clay to be molded into creatures at once submissive and violent.
All political philosophies rest on notions of human nature. And what we think human nature is--indeed, whether we think there is such a thing--depends somewhat on conclusions we draw from political events, such as these: A mother rejoicing that her teenage child has blown herself up in the process of blowing up other mothers' children. A Palestinian infant dressed as a suicide bomber--parents will have glittering dreams for their children.
There was violence, but there were not suicide bombers with celebrating choruses, when Yasir Arafat's Palestinian Authority thugocracy began its occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. After eight years of incitements--in schools, mosques, mass media--to anti-Semitic genocide, those areas now need de-Nazification. Eichmann's "little by little" has been compressed into just eight years.
Historian Richard Rhodes's new "Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust" may not be the ideal beach book. But this latest contribution to the debate about the origins of Nazi behavior--the processes of socialization to butchery--is dreadfully timely.
Much has been made of the Nazis' "modern" and "scientific" means of "industrializing" mass murder--railroads leading to gas chambers. But most Holocaust murders were, Rhodes says, "handcrafted," one at a time, using bullets, often fired at such close range that the shooters were splattered with gore. Himmler worried that this involved suffering--by his perpetrators.
After long days of Sardinenpackung (having Jews lay down on the last layer of those already murdered, in order to efficiently fill killing pits), Himmler hoped the performers of "this burdensome duty" would relax in civilized evenings: "The comradely gathering must on no account, however, end in the abuse of alcohol. It should be an evening on which--as far as possible--they sit and eat at table in the best German domestic style, and music, lectures and the introductions to the beauties of German intellectual and emotional life occupy the hours."
Of course there was shop talk, too. At one post-massacre dinner, an officer explained that his more experienced killers tossed children into the air to shoot them, not out of unseemly exuberance, but because bullets often passed through children's bodies, so shooting them on floors or streets could cause dangerous ricochets.
Rhodes' most disturbing vignette is not of the German walking with a year-old baby impaled on his bayonet, still crying weakly. More chilling, in its way, is this: one supervisor of massacres "had the photographs taken at the executions developed at two photographic shops in southern Germany and showed them to his wife and friends." Were the technicians who developed the film perturbed? The wife and friends--was their moral sense, which supposedly is part (a large part? a durable part?) of human nature, disturbed?
Civilization's enemies attack civilization's foundational idea, the proposition that human nature is not infinitely plastic, that people cannot be socialized to accept or do anything. These enemies believe that human beings have no common nature, no shared moral sense that is a component of a universal human nature. Rather, all we have in common is a capacity to acquire an infinite variety of cultures, however vile.
Rhodes's book contributes evidence to the debate about the roles of nature and nurture, of ideology and peer pressure and other things in the making of people who participate in mass murder. The Palestinian Authority is also contributing much evidence. Rhodes's book, and Arafat's willing executioners of Jews, and Palestinian parents who rejoice at the suicides of their murderous children, and Palestinian street mobs drunk with delight about dismembered Jews--all these point to a conclusion: teaching (to use Eichmann's verb) such participants is disturbingly easy.
With the recent terrorist bomb planted to kill young people at an Israeli university, terrorists reached an apogee, a purity of evil, simultaneously targeting youth and learning. In Joseph Conrad's "Secret Agent" (1907), a novel about terrorism, a theorist of terror justifies targeting England's Greenwich observatory. Mere butchery is a bit banal, so:
"The attack must have all the shocking senselessness of gratuitous blasphemy. Since bombs are your means of expression, it would be really telling if one could throw a bomb into pure mathematics. But that is impossible."
Such are the disappointments of modern barbarians, who otherwise are prospering.