By Vicki Gray
And this is the judgment that the light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.
I have always been drawn to John’s vision of God as warming, illuminating, loving, life-giving light. It is a theme that runs through Scripture…from the very beginning.
But each time I sought the warmth of that light last week, I found myself sucked into the depressing darkness of evil - the appalling crimes at Abu Ghraib. That depression deepened, as those responsible sought to hide in the darkness “lest [their] deeds should be exposed.”
In the sickeningly pale light of those self-damning photographs from an American torture chamber, I found echoes of other crimes by other people that have rattled around my mind and haunted my conscience for far too long.
In the boarded over windows of the Abu Ghraib cells, I recalled Cell Block 11 at Auschwitz, the basement of which was described as follows by SS Unterscharführer Pery Broad in a Polish book, Auzchwitz In the Eyes of the SS: …one could see in the dim light…that the windows were nearly wholly bricked up, with the exception of a narrow strip not wider than a hand, to get daylight in….Even the cellar windows were heavily barred. Here and there strange looking tin cases were affixed at the level of the cellar windows, and it was hard to guess what purpose they served.
Taking visiting Americans on tours of Auschwitz as American Consul in Krakow 1973-75, I learned that those tin cases were used to pump carbon monoxide from vehicle exhausts into the hermetically-sealed cells where Soviet POWs were killed in early extermination trials.
Later, as consul in Munich 1982-85, I often visited Dachau and came across a book by Wendy von Staden, the wife of the German Ambassador in Washington - a courageous account of growing up near a small concentration camp where prisoners from Dachau were sent to die of starvation and disease. In that book, Darkness Over the Valley, she described in personal terms what Hannah Arendt described as the “banality of evil.” Toward the end, as French troops approached, she and her mother came face-to-face with a work detachment rioting over a kettle of potatoes.
“What kind of people are these anyway?” mother asked [an SS guard], horror-struck. “They’re no longer human beings”….”They are Jews,” replied the guard, “sub-humans. You can see that for yourself.” I was standing next to mother, when suddenly we heard a man’s voice behind us. The voice itself was low and soft, speaking in good clear German, but there was an undertone of almost menacing fury. “It’s you who’ve made us into animals, and you’ll pay for what you’ve done to us.
Later at home Wendy’s mother confronted her father, who had been watching from a window: “Keep out of this,” my father said almost threateningly. “It has nothing to do with us. We can’t do a thing about it.” And then he grabbed his walking stick and went outside. Mother continued to pace, talking as if to herself, “These people are simply starving. That’s it. They’re half-crazed with hunger….That man was right, we’ve made them into beasts, into subhumans. We.”
I remember yet another instance in 1965 of evil in a darkened place – a place called Long Phu. I was a young officer, the junior of two advisors to a Vietnamese unit. The senior advisor, Dale, and I shared a thatched “hootch,” the opposite side of which comprised the “office” of our counterpart, Lieutenant Qui. The wall between was open at the top. One night, as we were dozing off, a dim bulb on the other side clicked on amidst a commotion of shouts and pleas, as a VC prisoner was hauled into the “office.” There were sounds of pistol whippings, the click of an unloaded pistol, and screams of torment. Pushing back the mosquito-netting, I hopped out of bed, and was about to dart around to the other side of the hootch, when Dale barked at me “Go back to sleep. It’s none of our business. That’s the way they do things.” I fell back on the cot in tears and sweat, listening to the screams, watching the shadows on a dimly lit thatched roof…unable to form a prayer.
It was against this flood of awful memories that I tried last week to process the atrocities of Abu Ghraib and the murder of a young American, Nicholas Berg. I’m still trying…and still crying…trying to form a prayer for forgiveness. For it is we who have created – in a gulag stretching from Bagram to Guantanamo - new legions of “sub-humans” who will seek to “make us pay.” But we have already paid. For, in staring at those awful pictures, we are staring at our self-made, self-willed hell.
But, are we, like Wendy’s Germans, condemned to live in an unending hell of collective guilt? If, like Limbaugh, Savage, Hannity, and O’Reilly, you believe that we have nothing to apologize for or confess to, perhaps. If, like President Bush and Secretary Rumsfeld, you believe that the ultimate epithet to be tossed at the crimes of Abu Ghraib is “un-American,” perhaps. A people that so believes in its exceptionalism that “God” becomes “America” and “sin” “un-American” deserves a divine slapping around. It is truly surprising that a president who views the world through a neo-Manichean prism of black and white, good and evil, light and darkness, cannot recognize a sin when he sees one.
On the whole, I’m inclined to believe that sin is universal and that we, too, are capable of sinning in the same way and to the same extent as Germans sixty years ago. In this regard, I have learned much from Zygmunt Baumann, a Jewish Polish sociologist who warns, in his Modernity and the Holocaust, against: …focusing on the Germaness of the crime…exonerating everyone else, and particularly everything else. The implication that the perpetrators of the Holocaust were a wound or malady of our civilization – rather than its horrifying, yet legitimate product – results not only in the moral comfort of self-exculpation, but also in the dire threat of moral and political disarmament. It all happened ‘out there’ – in another time, another country. The more ‘they’ are to blame, the more the rest of ‘us’ are safe, and the less we have to do to defend our safety. Once the allocation of guilt is implied to be equivalent to the location of the causes, the innocence and sanity of the way of life we are so proud of need not be cast in doubt.
Well, I’m here to cast doubt on the innocence and sanity of our current American way of life. And, like Hannah Arendt, I agree that it is the individual’s obligation to resist socialization in the face of authority – governmental and/or societal – in which the “social foundations of morality have been cast aside.” I believe, moreover, with Baumann’s hopeful conclusion that: …putting self-preservation above moral duty is in no way pre-determined, inevitable, and inescapable. One can be pressed to do [evil], but one cannot be forced to do it, and thus one cannot really shift the responsibility for doing it on those who exerted the pressure. It does not matter how many people chose moral duty over the rationality of self-preservation – what does matter is that some did. Evil is not all-powerful. It can be resisted. The testimony of the few who did resist shatters the logic of self-preservation. It shows it for what it is in the end – a choice. One wonders how many people must defy that logic for evil to be incapacitated. Is there a magic threshold of defiance beyond which the technology of evil grinds to a halt?
I find hope also in the words of Tahar Ben Jalloun, a Moroccan, who endured horrors similar to those at Abu Ghraib in the darkened underground prisons of King Hassan II. Temporarily blinded, he described his real experience in a searing “novel,” This Blinding Absence of Light. In his “fiction,” he described a light that John would understand:
A sliver of sky must have hovered right above the vent, the indirect opening that let the air in but no light. I sensed the presence of this sky, and filled it with words and images. I shifted the stars around, meddling with them to make room for a little of that light imprisoned in my breast. I felt the radiance. How can one feel light? When an inner brightness caressed my skin and warmed it, I knew that it was visiting me.
The Holy Spirit in a Muslim’s breast…and mine. It warms me too…and gives me hope this spring morning.