April 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

I woke up thinking about genocide. It’s not that genocide comes up particularly often in my brain, but I was watching Titanic before bed, which I think injected a sense of tragedy and human error into my subconscious. 

Titanic wasn’t a tragedy on the scale of the Holocaust by any means, but in a way, genocide was similarly committed. Committed against poor people rather than Jews. There’s a lot I don’t understand about human nature. When I get really angry with someone, I am angry with them because they specifically harmed me, whether directly or by harming someone I love. I don’t hate a group of people for some historical harm or for some perceived character flaw. 

How could anyone look at a group of desperate passengers and lock the gates in front of them, locking them into a death by drowning, all because they were poor? Because their financial state somehow implied that they weren’t worth saving? Where does that cruel sense of survival come from? How do we reconcile that with the sense of selflessness that we so revere in our heroes, both fictional and historical?

To be fair, locking so many passengers below may have saved lives by preventing a total frenzy on the decks and for the life boats. But how could a person do that? How could someone look at those faces, wide-eyed and filled with fear, and close steel bars in front of them, ignore their desperate pleas for a chance at survival or for their children to be spared. I may be a lot of things, but nowhere in my nature do I feel something that would lend me to act that way. 

So thinking about those people who died on the Titanic, who in my mind were murdered, led me to think about last days, last sunsets, last breaths of air. And I woke up picturing mountains of human bones, shoes, clothes. Remains of souls piled sky high. How could anyone see that and participate in it? How could anyone stand by without whirling into a furious protest? How could anyone not cry out for the loss–the rape–of humanity? 

The Holocaust seems too big to imagine most days. So many lives destroyed. I cannot and will not ever understand the rationale of Hitler. Piles of bones. People so starved they look like skeletons. Where is your humanity? How can you feel human suffering and still do that to another person? An innocent person? If you don’t know the name of the person you are killing, you have no right to even consider killing them. 

Hitler was a lunatic. He was insane. He was deranged. That I can understand. Some people are born broken. But how did he grow armies of human beings to commit the atrocities he commanded? What happened to the German people to make them go along with that, to forget or ignore or deny their own humanity, their own connection to their species? We are a violent animal, no doubt, but we also have an extraordinary sense of community, of sympathy, to our similars. How did Hitler inspire people to become such extreme echos of Man? Such weapons of fratricide. 

Even the heroes of World War II, the soldiers who rushed in to free the Jews and save our race, lost their humanity much like the followers of Hitler. They starved the surviving Germans and raped the women and children who were trapped within their own nation, their own home. Like the murdered victims of the Titanic, these people were locked in, tortured, beaten, and killed but with no more blame than the Jews had when they became victims of genocide. The heroes were just as violent, just as inhumane, as the soldiers of Hitler. 

What kind of world does that leave us? How do we witness a violent stripping of humanity, a ripping apart of our collective soul, and go on? How can we live with ourselves knowing the dangers of our nature, seeing the evidence of the violence and cruelty within? 

The people who were rescued from genocide during World War II did not turn into monsters. They continued to embrace humanity, compassion, and reason. How is that possible? Where is that inner strength within myself? Where was that inner strength when Hitler rose to power and when Hitler was defeated? 

Coincidentally, NPR had a relevant story this morning:


Such an alien notion to me, as I have so little ability in my heart to forgive anyone of anything. I certainly can’t forgive myself, no matter how often I rationalize behaviors and see the reasoning in the mistakes. 

How does forgiveness overcome revenge, violence, rage? What is the source of forgiveness within human hearts? How can such a selfless notion exist among our many selfish, narcissistic, and chaotic impulses and motivations?

Forgiveness. Perhaps the only saving grace for our tragic histories, our souls lost in the black.

Truly, we are fascinating creatures. 


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