Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A Comment on the Mystery of Evil.

Another virus or other "security issue" seems to have paralyzed my Norton Security System. I am doing my best to cope with the problem. Please see "New Jersey's Feces Covered Supreme Court" and "Is New Jersey Chief Justice Deborah T. Poritz Unethical or Only Incompetent?" I think my adversaries are helping to prove my case. Numerous annoying phone calls and other harassment is routine. October 25, 2007 at 11:41 A.M. 800-724-9586. I am blocking:

http://view.atdmt.com/iview/msnnkhac001728x90... (NJ)

Peter Applebome, "Veteran of the Nuremberg Trials Can't Forget Dialogue With Infamy," in The New York Times, March 14, 2007, at p. B1.
Douglas M. Kelley, M.D., 22 Cells in Nuremberg (New York: McFadden, 1961), pp. 44-63 ("Goring").
Eugen Kogon, The Theory and Practice of Hell (New York: Berkeley, 1958), pp.152-174 ("Nazi Scientific Experiments").
Mary Midgley, Wickedness: A Philosophical Essay (London & New York: Ark, 1984), pp. 93-113.
Edith Wyshogrod, Spirit in Ashes: Hegel, Heidegger, and Man-Made Mass Death (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1985), pp. 35-57.

A uniformed correction officer (CO) is sitting behind a "caged" window. Visitors to this jail must sign-in. They are then stamped on the right hand and receive a card pinned to their clothing. Visitors must pass through two metal detectors, empty their pockets, take off their shoes, belts, remove watches, deposit cellphones.

"You'll get everything back when you leave." The great humanitarian sitting behind the window has been brain dead for years. He says these words automatically. They are recorded and spoken from some mechanism hidden in his throat. He chews on his cigar. The cigar went out some time ago, along with the last of his brain cells. There are a few brown women waiting to see loved-ones, one or two lawyers, an investigator from the local prosecutor's office. Almost every inmate I see is African-American or Latino. This is something which pisses me off every time I visit such a place.

I arrive early to interview a prospective client for a law firm. Family members and inmates are overwhelmingly minority group members. Criminals come from every social strata and group in U.S. society. People who go to jail or prison in America are overwhelmingly minority group members. I do not believe that this is a coincidence. As I have indicated, this sense of entering a world akin to a slave ship is overwhelming.

A stench of excrement, semen, sweat and humid rottenness assails your notrils. It is the smell of hopelessness. Meetings with our most powerful judges and politicians should be held in the worst prisons in America. I think politicians should see the conditions in which men and women are housed in many of America's penal institutions. I don't mean "see" a prison for fifteen minutes during a sanitized visit or "tour." Prisons are not Disneyworld. I mean for a few hours or more. Maybe officials and judges should spend a night, enjoying the full hospitality of the establishment.

Among human rights discussions now taking place internationally, often boycotted by the U.S., are a number of conventions dealing with prison conditions. Unwisely, the U.S. has also avoided membership in the International Criminal Court -- out of concern that U.S. officials will be indicted by that tribunal for human rights violations. That should tell you something. Many New Jersey officials should be indicted. They soon will be. I hope.

The U.S. is no longer among the world's leaders in humane prison conditions. Lousiana and other states have been strongly criticized by international authorities for deplorable prison conditions and cruel treatment of offenders. New Jersey's prisons are not among the worst. Yet they are often terrible places, falling well below minimum standards for decent treatment of human beings. On any number of occasions, I saw inmates enter courtrooms with bruises and wounds obviously resulting from prison violence. Only once did a judge ask about the injuries in a half-hearted way. Judges know about prison violence and either don't care or do not feel responsible for preventing it and protecting inmates. They have to "move the cases." Number one comment heard from judges: "let's get rid of this matter."

I am led into a small room. I am scheduled to interview an accused child molester. A balding, chubby guy strolls into the room a few minutes after me. He is remarkably chipper considering that we are not at the Plaza Hotel for tea and biscuits. We discuss some details concerning the truly horrendous charges that he is facing. He wants to know whether he can "bum a cigarette" from me. I explain that I don't smoke. I am aware that prison regulations forbid sharing cigarettes with inmates. He also must be aware of such regulations. Clearly, this is a man who takes rules very seriously.

I wonder how many philosophers can list such conversations among their experiences? Not many. How about Anne Milgram? Has Anne chatted with the odd psychopath, here and there, other than members of the Senate and judiciary? I doubt it. There are lessons in life and philosophical riddles offered by evil persons worthy of serious scholarly attention. They are mostly ignored by America's cloistered academics, whose irrelevance increases daily.

Poets and novelists who have graduated from Yale and a "Bread Loaf" conference last year presume to write novels about evil at age 26. I am sure that the trauma of life at boarding school will be highly instructive.

He complains about the food. He wants to know when he's getting out. Mind you, no retainer has yet been received by the law firm. This guy is already complaining. I read the charges and mention the seriousness of the accusations against him. Without inquiring into guilt, I speak of the harm done to innocent victims. I ask for factual information. I detect not the slightest qualm, inhibition, sense of guilt at the alleged commission of these horrible crimes and the psychological harm suffered by victims, whoever is responsible for their pain. Nothing. Nada. I could be reading a laundry list or baseball scores to this man. Even other inmates are often appalled by such characters. This particular defendant was not African-American. He was a happy-go-lucky Cuban-American fond of "the American dream."

I detect a lack of comprehension in his eyes, nothingness, emptiness. There is an orange jumper before me, a smile, an unperturbable and affable individual sits there, staring at me, saying in unspoken words: "What's the big deal?" I am sure that he was not stupid. He would have considered my concern about harm done to others a kind of stupidity.

Gary Kasparov, the former World Chess Champion, was interviewed before his multi-million dollar game against the IBM supercomputer "Big Blue." Kasparov explained that he felt "weird" because there was no opposing will or person sitting accross from him -- as there would be with a human opponent -- only a kind of void or abyss. He "felt" the machine's energy, but nothing affirmative, a total absence of feeling.

I felt exactly the same cold weirdness interviewing that particular individual -- who has since, no doubt, become a member of New Jersey's Assemby or President of the American Bar Association. Better yet, a "forensic psychiatrist" in New Jersey, like Diana Lisa Riccioli or Terry Tuchin. Something crawled inside that guy and died. What was chatting with me looked human. Maybe it was a "cleverly constructed automaton" -- to use Descartes' description of a "simulacra" of a human being -- an apparent human, but really a kind of android or pod-person. ("Not One More Victim.")

I understood, at that moment, the meaning of the Biblical phrase about those "who are dead and do not know it." I understood then that, whatever that guy was, I would treat him as a human being because I prefer any fate to becoming such a walking corpse. I believe that such a zombie-like moral status is a possibility for all of us in this dismal age, for some more than others. Hence, I believe that society must always treat persons -- even the very worst offenders -- in a humane manner. We must not become worse than the criminals we punish. Anything that smacks of dehumanization is detestable. We should refrain from torturing human beings or enslaving them, first of all for our own sakes, and only secondly for their sakes.

Does "guitar man" in my building belong to New Jersey politicians or to the Times? I can write through a nuclear blast, folks.

I have no desire to tell other persons what to believe or how to lead their lives. If you are determined to be a moron and walk around saying things like "it's all relative." Fine by me. You can have sex with a penguin, or while wearing a scuba outfit, without incurring my disapproval. Who cares? Not my business. There are strange people -- often women! -- committed to arranging other people's inner lives. This is indeed bizarre. Usually the worst tortures are reserved for the men in their lives. Sometimes, a female Torquemada (psychobabbler) will go out of her way to design intimate relationships for her neighbors, threatening the lives of all who disobey. I am one of the persons who will always disobey. Diana? ("'Revolutionary Road': A Movie Review.")

What the CO sitting at the entrance to this jail has in common with this offender (to a much lesser degree) is a terrible loss of affect or humanity. Many judges and lawyers, physicians and other officials in our society -- increasingly in recent years -- are afflicted with this bizarre death of feeling. Something about the conditions of contemporary life is killing human moral and intuitive capacities. I have spoken elsewhere of "social autism." Perhaps this has something to do with the horrors at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. ("America's Unethical Medical Torturers" and "Is America's Legal Ethics a Lie?")

This is not a problem that will be cured with more efficiency or thoroughness. No gadget will solve this problem. I am suggesting that we are feeling less, collectively and individually. This must be a result of social conditions not receiving adequate attention from social scientists. This loss of affect diminishes all of us, in a moral sense. To feel less is to be less human.

I came accross a profile in the Times of Richard W. Sonnenfeldt, 83, the American prosecutors' chief interpreter for the Nuremberg war crimes trials of Nazis in 1945-46. Mr. Sonnefeldt's bafflement and continuing sense of shock at discussions with Nazis mirrored my feelings on that occasion and others -- when I conducted jail house interviews that I will never forget -- along with my interviewee's parting comment: "Be smart. Stay out of trouble." Right. Thanks for the advice.

What is "evil"? Is it something negative or positive? Can it be both?

Transcripts of Nuremberg proceedings reveal matter-of-fact discussions among former SS officers and concentration camp officials concerning the details and methods of execution in the camps. They might have been discussing logistics for delivery of widgets. Mr. Sonnenfeldt says that --

" -- after all these years, what resonates most about it is the terrifying normality of it all -- Goring's jolly charm and bluster; von Ribbentrop's empty-headed blather; Speer's charismatic self-promotion and salesmanship; Olendorf and Hoess, like two enterprising middle managers with extermination at the top of their to-do lists."

One has a feeling of disconnection when encountering such a person. It is as though there is a wall dividing a criminal or torturer from his or her own emotions (Diana? Terry?), let alone the feelings of others. Some essential ingredient of humanity is missing in the evil person. One finds oneself withdrawing in horror, pretending to speak to torturers through a long distance connection, as a defense mechanism, to retain one's sanity. It is vital to move towards that other person, even in revulsion, horror and pain, so as to feel what he or she will not. I think we owe that much to those who suffer at the hands of such moral monsters. I do not envy anyone who must represent such an individual in court, while recognizing how vital it is for society to respect even that person's rights. ("Terry Tuchin, Diana Lisa Riccioli, and New Jersey's Agency of Torture" and "An Open Letter to My Torturers in New Jersey, Terry Tuchin and Diana Lisa Riccioli.")

It is always most tempting to violate the rights of an unpopular or powerless offender, to become "like him" in order to "teach him a lesson." However, that is what we must never do. It is only a short step from the violation of such a defendant's rights to the violation of your rights. Even the person who violates my rights, therefore, must be granted his or her due process protections. The lesson of Nuremberg for Mr. Sonnenfeldt was the dangers of power, especially power wielded secretly or unaccountably, "for the good of its victims." These concerns seem timely for us in the United States, especially in dismal places like New Jersey.

"People have to realize that power and evil run on the same track, he said."

After two hundred convictions for corruption, murders in state hospitals, allegations of tortures and rapes of persons in state custody, an entire state sued for criminal fraud -- New Jersey's citizens may wish to ponder these words. The Nazi horrors are symbolic of something existing in lesser degrees in all human societies, human delight in inflicting pain and suffering on others. This capacity is usually combined with bureaucratic self-righteousness and sanctimony, that is, when government agents indulge in it. That's you, John McGill. Hoess, commandant at Auschwitz,

"... was asked about cases in which camp officers stole gold that had been melted down from victim's fillings. Had he ever done anything like that? He answered: 'What kind of man do you think I am?' ..."

A person guilty of "crimes against humanity" -- responsible for the lingering, slow, painful deaths of hundreds of thousands -- expresses outrage at the petty faults of others or at being falsely accused of some minor offense, without detecting any irony or contradiction. Mary Midgley notes in her classic study of "wickedness":

" ... we shall need, I believe, to think of wickedness not primarily as a positive, definite human tendency like aggression, whose intrusion into human life needs a special explanation, but rather as negative, as a general kind of failure to live as persons are capable of living. It will follow that, in order to understand it, we need primarily to understand our positive capacities." (p. 7.)

To appreciate the inhumanity that reaches pathological levels in such offenders, whether they wear orange jumpsuits or black robes, it will be necessary to understand what is a person or humanity. A contributing factor in this post-Holocaust diminution of feeling in the Western world is the denigration of emotions in all cognition and hyperrationalization in public legal and political life. (See Robert C. Solomon's A Passion for Justice.)

A way not to see a person is to refer to a "defendant" or file number and not to him or her, by name. Such a "professionalized" way of perceiving persons is, first of all, not to see them; secondly, it is a way of protecting oneself from the full scope of that human being's moral demand or call upon us; finally, it is in that very self-protective distancing that we encounter the greatest danger of all -- numbing of the moral faculties, spiritual necrosis, an embrace of the death principle that makes what Edith Wyschogrod calls "the death event" more and not less likely. This is a danger for all of us, especially powerful persons. Consider this description of sociopaths:

"Sociopaths primarily lack certain emotions: sympathetic pleasure at another's happiness, dismay at another's sorrow, remorse at having brought trouble to another. I shall use this lack of sympathy as my definition of the condition. It should be clear how different from the profile of the violent individual this is. There is no crossing the threshold from normal to pathological: the sociopath is always operating in the same mode, and is incapable of operating any other way." (Morton, p. 48.)

Unlike the violent offender, the sociopath is apparently normal. He or she mimics the behavior of others, says the things that people say, pretending to feel what they feel, so as to be taken for normal. He or she pretends to be "like" other people. Others are not fully real to sociopaths. The pain of others may be interesting, amusing, or a source of indifference. "We can learn from you," torturers say. Sociopaths are sometimes excellent functionaries, officials, prison guards, prison psychologists, lawyers and judges. Think of Adolf Eichmann. It is only under conditions of large-scale alienation and anonymity that mass murder becomes possible, with the eager assistance of such sociopaths. I am sure that many of the officials I have known, in the right circumstances, would have been happy to "serve" at Auschwitz. How does a Jew become Mengele, Terry Tuchin?

"Heaps of corpses were lying in the main pathways. Those who still had a little life in them were crawling on all fours in search of scraps of food. Haggard, starved bodies, bulging eyes, pitifully appealing for help."

"I entered some of the huts which accomodated hundreds of emaciated bodies lying in the tiered bunks. The nauseating smell was unbearable. These wretched victims were lying in indescribable filth. At first sight it was impossible to distinguish between the barely living and dead, for those who still had the barest trace of life looked lifeless. ... Hundreds died everyday and little or no effort had been made to remove the corpses. To enter these huts was like a descent into Dante's Inferno. ... Within the first two or three weeks after liberation, no less than 20,000 corpses were removed from the huts and from the heaps lying in the main paths."

"... Owing to the vast numbers involved, the most expedient method of burial was to commit them to mass graves which were prepared by bulldozers provided by the Royal Engineers. The indignity of these burials was deeply disturbing. ... To recite the Kaddish over such a heap of emaciated bodies cast helter-skelter into the pits, each containing 5000 such corpses, seemed to negate the concept of man created in the divine image." (Levy, p. 10-12, Harries, p. 7.)

I am inviting you to look such horror in the face. I am asking you to understand that indifference to what men and women have done at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo -- much worse, at Darfur or the killing fields of Cambodia, in the Gulags, or anywhere -- is to share in their moral responsibility. One of the most painful aspects of the photos from Abu Ghraib has not been commented on by American journalists. Soldiers committing atrocities had American flags sewn on their uniforms. Those American flags are now, falsely, associated with images of horror in the minds of billions of people throughout the world. Those actions by torturers are not defining of the United States of America. The American flag and people must be representative of the opposite of those crimes. It is no solution to air brush photos to remove the flags from uniforms.

Experiencing a torture chamber, the sense of physical powerlessness when placed at the mercy of faceless "others." Laughter on the part of persons witnessing one's pain, humiliation, insults, denigration of one's humanity, violations of one's autonomy and dignity, destruction of one's life-preserving creative work, sexual violation are not things that I wish for anyone to experience. However, there are lessons instilled in survivors of such horrors. At best, only a piece of a person survives that level of trauma. The goal for torturers then becomes to destroy what is left, which may explain continuing computer attacks against my writings and me. Years of torture from hypocrites must be endured without resorting to violence. This may be my last chance to write for a while. "You are shit and your book is shit." These words are tattooed on my forehead. They are burned into my flesh forever. A New Jersey "gentleperson" who is, she claims, "very ethical" spoke those words to me. Shortly after I was told this I found my words in a celebrated publication under another person's name. ("What is it like to be plagiarized?" and "'Brideshead Revisited': A Movie Review.")

My challenge is to recognize and respect the humanity even of those torturers, insisting on their rights to due process and humane treatment. My daily challenge is not to succumb to the desire for a palliative or any anesthetic for emotional pain -- there are millions of anesthetics available, including hatred of those who have and do hurt us, every day, or violence which is always a defeat of one's humanity -- but to accept or even welcome such pain, like an old aquaintance, even when it is paralyzing, as I continue to insist on justice.

To stare into the eyes of a real Nazi (something which a few of us have had to do) is to look into an infinite and absolutely dark abyss, a moral black hole. When doing so -- when facing a Nazi -- we must all describe ourselves as Jews. Facing that Nazi and not blinking is a hell of a lot more important than being a lawyer in New Jersey.

I hope to have instructed New Jersey in the ways that a slander here or there, a vicious comment directed at undermining or disconfirming a victim's identity, can bring about the destruction of any person's moral foundations -- especially when self-esteem is weak or non-existent. C.S. Lewis devotes his Screwtape Letters to examining this malicious process. Much worse is the social harm produced by behind-the-back smears and attacks against someone chosen for destruction in these ways.

As I write this, the Easter Holidays are coming up. If you have read this comment, which is intended mostly for non-Jews -- and if you are Catholic -- I will ask you to say this prayer from the Catholic liturgy for Good Friday:

"Let us pray for the Jewish people,
the first to hear the word of God,
that they may continue to grow in the love of his name
and in faithfulness to his covenant."

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