the trouble with normal: beware the ordinary

How are we to explain the behavior of the perpetrators of murder? Often, the factual record is not in doubt, but the historical and moral implications remain at best, ambiguous. It is obvious that our own society and our mass and individual psychology seem to contain the potential, the seeds, of mass slaughter. Even genocide. It would be relaxing if we could assign the holocaust and WII with its civilian casualties to the dustbin of history, and wash our hands while  claiming that we can turn the page and move on. Lo and behold, Bosnia, Rwanda, and the tragedy of new atrocities in Libya and Syria among other inglorious events remind us how proximate we are to mass murder.

---Artist: Boris Lurie (1924-2008) Title: Untitled Date: 1971 Read More:

As the Stanley Milgram experiments implied, the individual has a deep-seated reflex to respect and defer to authority.Very few opted out of the orders to administer electric shocks to respondents who failed to produce the desired responses.  This tendency, as Hannah Arendt discovered in the Eichmann trial, seems particularly enhanced where individuals seek career advancement. And the Zimbardo Stanford prison experiment revealed that the peer group exerts an inordinate level of pressure on behavior and establishes moral norms. Modern marketing has simply inverted the issue, like Orwell’s doublespeak, while asserting that this conformity is actually as means of expressing your individuality.

It would be less disturbing if we could lay the locus of the problem of tragic authors on the shoulders of monsters in the most literal sense possible, as a means of disconnecting ourselves; but the truth is that the word ordinary is inescapable. As the house senate committee of banking- think Goldman Sachs- hearings showed or the Nuremberg Trials, those in the dock of questioning show that “ordinary” is a catch-all term that encompasses rigid conformists, ideologues, zealots, opportunists, profiteers, adventurers and those with chronic moral cowardice….

---TONY EASTLEY: The former chief of the Bosnian-Serb army, Ratko Mladic has been removed from a war crimes courtroom in The Hague. Mr Mladic refused to enter a plea and continuously disrupted proceedings. He's facing 11 charges of genocide and crimes against humanity stemming from the 1992-1995 Bosnian war. Europe correspondent Rachael Brown reports. RACHAEL BROWN: The disrespect shown to the court was similar to the stalling tactics the world's watched from Mr Mladic's former political chief, Radovan Karadzic who's also standing trial in The Hague. Mr Mladic tipped his cap mockingly towards some relatives of his alleged victims and refused to take the cap off, saying his head was cold. The 69-year-old interrupted Judge Alphons Orle at every turn.--- Read More:

Thomas L. Friedman:In April 1982, I was assigned to be the Beirut correspondent for The Times. Before I arrived, word had filtered back to Lebanon about an uprising in February in the Syrian town of Hama — famed for its water wheels on the Orontes River. Rumor had it that then President Hafez al-Assad had put down a Sunni Muslim rebellion in Hama by shelling the neighborhoods where the revolt was centered, then dynamiting buildings, some with residents still inside, and then steamrolling them flat, like a parking lot. It was hard to believe and even harder to check. …

---Robert Fisk:What we found inside the Palestinian camp at ten o'clock on the morning of September 1982 did not quite beggar description, although it would have been easier to re-tell in the cold prose of a medical examination. There had been medical examinations before in Lebanon, but rarely on this scale and never overlooked by a regular, supposedly disciplined army. In the panic and hatred of battle, tens of thousands had been killed in this country. But these people, hundreds of them had been shot down unarmed. This was a mass killing, an incident - how easily we used the word "incident" in Lebanon - that was also an atrocity. It went beyond even what the Israelis would have in other circumstances called a terrorist activity. It was a war crime. Read More:

…It was said that the Syrian regime was “encouraging” Syrians to drive through the town, see the crushed neighborhoods and contemplate the silence. So I just hired a cab in Damascus and went. It was, and remains, one of the most chilling things I’ve ever seen: Whole neighborhoods, the size of four football fields, looked as though a tornado had swept back and forth over them for a week — but this was not the work of Mother Nature….

---In 1941 Charles Portal of the British Air Staff advocated that entire cities and towns should be bombed. Portal claimed that this would quickly bring about the collapse of civilian morale in Germany. Air Marshall Arthur Harris agreed and when he became head of RAF Bomber Command in February 1942, he introduced a policy of area bombing (known in Germany as terror bombing) where entire cities and towns were targeted. One tactic used by the Royal Air Force and the United States Army Air Force was the creation of firestorms. This was achieved by dropping incendiary bombs, filled with highly combustible chemicals such as magnesium, phosphorus or petroleum jelly (napalm), in clusters over a specific target. After the area caught fire, the air above the bombed area, become extremely hot and rose rapidly. Cold air then rushed in at ground level from the outside and people were sucked into the fire. In 1945, Arthur Harris decided to create a firestorm in the medieval city of Dresden. He considered it a good target as it had not been attacked during the war and was virtually undefended by anti-aircraft guns. The population of the city was now far greater than the normal 650,000 due to the large numbers of refugees fleeing from the advancing Red Army. ---Read More: image:

…This was an act of unprecedented brutality, a settling of scores between Assad’s minority Alawite regime and Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority that had dared to challenge him. If you kicked the ground in some areas that had been flattened, a tattered book, a shred of clothing, the tip of a steel reinforcing rod were easily exposed. It was a killing field. According to Amnesty International, up to 20,000 people were buried there….Read More:

---Robin Kornman:These terms of existence stripped away whatever of culture and civilization was not rooted in the core of human experience. Frankl details with an attitude of scientific exactitude, and without ideology, moralizing or fancy theory, precisely what is left after this dissolving of boundaries has taken its course. His authority is unquestionable because in the narrative you see him, a cultured, sophisticated and sensitive psychotherapist, survive the specific horrors of a universe where being human is admitted no sacredness. When Frankl described his personal, wordless discovery that there is something transcendent in the human condition, it was the first and most authoritative positive response to T.S. Eliot's complaint that Western civilization had collapsed because its values were hollow. Frankl does not attempt to set up a new system of morality or to uphold the old one. In fact, he is not given to judgement at all. But he gives positive evidence for the underlying indestructible character of humanity. He argues that there is a basic nature to humanness, a nature that is other than the instinctual drives and mechanistic forces enshrined in every modernist theory. Where Freud proposes an instinctual subconscious common to animals and humans, Frankl proposes another mentality that he calls

t;the spiritual unconscious." This mind is motivated not by the will to pleasure, as in Freud, or the will to power, as in Adlerian psychology, but by what Frankl calls "the will to meaning."---Read More: image:

In all these horrific killings there is the inner circle and the big kahuna who gives the directive, but it would not be possible without a much bigger and willing group of ordinary men inclined to become perpetrators.To break rank and to stop, to throw a monkey wrench into the gears and adopt a non-conformist attitude is habitually limited to a small and marginalized minority.It seems apparent that this entire fabricated context breathes on the toxic oxygen of lying; a lying to others and to oneself appearing as normal, due course and a mode of being. Others such as Derrida, claim the big lie is not primary since it infers that their is a truth, or the truth wins or that the truth is never completely destroyed. It brings it back to ordinary being linked to a thesis of individual and collective corruption as well as a theory of imitation and a passive and active complicity.

Usually, the actual trigger pullers receive little attention, but they represent the necessary ingredient by which governments exploit the conformity of the ordinary to wield violence over their proper citizenry or warring neighbors.  Ultimately, regimes like Assad and Gaddafi have slaughters because they are successful in organizing substantial numbers of people willing to carry out the crimes. Whether Assad’s men are in command or lower placed, they all doing their part,with what appears to be all the efficiency they can bring to bear.

One of the few books to explore the subject is Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. In brief, this police detachment from Hamburg, 500 men at an average age of 39,shot 38,000 jews in short order and dispatched another 45,000 to Treblinka. Two were executed in Poland for war crimes, but most returned to civilian life, collected pensions and lived an ordinary complacent existence without posing too many troubling questions:

The Battalion was ordered to select out the young men for labor and shoot the rest of the population–about 1,500 men, women, and children. Major Trapp was obviously shaken by the order. He asked the battalion medical officer: “My God, why must I do this?” The unit arrived in Jozefow before dawn, and Papa Trapp (as the men called him), gave a brief speech. His voice choked with tears, he fought to control himself as he told the men that they had orders to perform a very unpleasant task. Major Trapp then made the men an extraordinary offer: if any of the policemen did not feel up to the task that lay before them, they could be excused. After some hesitation, ten or twelve men stepped forward. They turned in their rifles and were assigned other jobs. His driver remembered Trapp saying, “If this Jewish business is ever avenged on earth, then God have mercy on us Germans.”

The men assigned to shoot the Jews gathered in a circle around the battalion surgeon to receive instructions as to the best place to aim. One policeman recalled that “Dr. Schoenfelder sketched on the ground the upper part of a human body and marked on the neck the spot at which we should fire.”

The Jews of Jozefow were taken into the forest in groups of twenty and executed by a bullet to the neck or head. Those soldiers tasked with the actual shooting found the experience difficult. Shooting people at close range, in the words of Sergeant Bentheim, meant that “The executioners were gruesomely soiled with blood, brain matter, and bone splinters. It stuck to their clothes.” The thirty men of Lieutenant Kurt Drucker’s platoon shot three hundred Jews in three hours. In all, Police Battalion 101 shot approximately 1,500 Jews that afternoon. A fairly significant portion of the unit–according to Christopher Browning, 10 to 15% — either did not shoot at all, or started shooting but could not continue.Read More:

Franz Kastenbaum* volunteered the following account to the Hamburg prosecutorThe shooting of the men was so repugnant to me that I missed the fourth man. It was simply no longer possible for me to aim accurately. I suddenly felt nauseous and ran away from the shooting site. I have expressed my-self incorrectly just now. It was not that I could longer aim accurately, rather that the fourth time I intentionally missed. I then ran into the woods, vomited, and sat down against a tree. . . .Today I can say that my nerves were totally finished.

…The men climbed into their trucks and returned to their barracks. An extra ration of alcohol was issued. The men spoke little, ate almost nothing, but drank a great deal. That night one policeman awoke from a nightmare firing his pistol into the ceiling of the barracks.

The men of Police Battalion 101 do not fit easily into any model of genocidal executioners current in Holocaust studies. These were not the fervent young products of Nazi indoctrination, nor were they the “desk murderers” portrayed in Hannah Arendt’s classic study of Adolf Eichmann. The massacre at Jozefow also illustrates a point worth reiteration: “the Holocaust was more than a bureaucratic operation; it was not the work of so many banal cogs in the wheels of evil.” Perpetrator encountered victim at close range.

Most came from Hamburg, a cosmopolitan port city with a long tradition of socialist politics and intermarriage between the Jewish and Christian population. If Munich was the most Nazi city in Germany, Hamburg was arguably the least Nazi city. In short, the social breakdown of this unit did not seem to offer a promising group from which to recruit mass murderers. Yet 80 to 90% of these men became efficient professional killers. How are we to explain this chilling transformation? Read More:

…Certainly Nazi racial propaganda played a role, but Browning discovered that the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 cited other factors including: the fear of breaking ranks, revealing unmanly “weakness” by refusing to shoot helpless victims, and even concerns over career advancement. Sergeant Bentheim* advised those who could not or would not carry out the orders to shoot to “slink away” to the marketplace and watch the trucks. One member of the battalion who refused to shoot remembered the response of his comrades returning from the murder site: “They showered me with remarks such as ‘shithead’ and ‘weakling’ to express their disgust.”

Those who refused to shoot argued not that they were “too good” but rather that they were “too weak” to kill. In this way they salved their consciences without challenging the dominant macho values of their comrades. Read More:



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