Sunday, March 16, 2008

"How could you have done what you did?"

Currently the most read link at the New Yorker’s website is "Auschwitz album," a slide show of photos in a recently found album that is the subject of an article in the March 17th issue of the New Yorker, "Picturing Auschwitz" by Alec Wilkinson (abstract of article).

The album is at the Holocaust Memorial Museum and includes 116 photos, mostly portraying off-duty German officers who worked at the Auschwitz concentration camp

What struck me was a paragraph toward the end of the article: “Several people at the museum told me [Alec Wilkinson] that the strangest thing about the album for them is that a person can look again and again at the images and never find an answer to the question 'How could you have done what you did?' One thing is that is particularly troubling is the presence of so many doctors and the pseudoscientific legitimacy that their participation lent to the process. I showed the album to Robert Jay Lifton, the psychiatrist and author of 'The Nazi Doctors' (1986). Alcohol, Lifton told me, is what it made it possible for many of the doctors to persevere when killing was substituted for the imperative to heal, or at least to do no harm...."

Fast forward to our country’s use of torture, which I posted about here. I included a sketch of Diliwar, the 22 year-old Afghan taxi driver who died as a result of five days of torture. Evidence showed that Dilawar had no connection to the rocket attack for which he had been apprehended.

In 2005, Specialist Glendale Wells of the U.S. Army pleaded guilty at a military court to pushing Dilawar against a wall and doing nothing to prevent other soldiers from abusing him. Wells was sentenced to two months in a military prison. Two other soldiers convicted in connection with the case escaped custodial sentences.

I wonder if Specialist Wells, the two other soldiers implicated in Dilawar's death, interrogators and guards of detainees, members of the medical profession who are supervising the interrogations, and the leaders in this country who are continuing to authorize the use of torture are drinking a lot.

(photo: Laughter lines the faces of Auschwitz camp staff as they prepare for a sing-song from the Daily Mail)


the democratic activist said...

Amazing picture.

They look like such happy, wonderful, fun-loving people. Then you see the uniforms, and remember that these are the people who committed some of the wickedest acts ever committed by human beings.

It can happen here. Ordinary people can become monsters. Even you and me.


Dan Gurney, Mr. Kindergarten said...

Listen to the Winter Soldier broadcasts on Pacifica Radio this weekend (ending this afternoon) and you realize that how easily well-intentioned young soldiers can become instruments of evil.

We should have compassion for the Germans. We should have compassion for ourselves. The distinctions between these societies are blurry at best.

Gail Jonas said...

Dan and Chris,
I agree with both of you. We who have not been tested don't have a clear idea of what we would do in these similar circumstances.

However, by being aware how easy it is to slip into inhumane treatment of others should help us guard against it.

Anonymous said...

Yes, they are all drinking! From the idiot in the White House on down the line.

Anonymous said...

Remember the scene in the movie "Mississippi Burning" where a special agent (very big, very fierce looking black guy) was brought in to scare confessions out of the locals who knew who murdered the civil rights workers?

I cheered him on at the time I watched the movie, and then later I thought about it some more and wondered if he would have tortured the local yokels to get the information?

It does give one pause. If we think someone is truly evil, we are willing to see very bad things happen to them.


Gail Jonas said...

Thanks for the comment. As I pulled my post together, I, too, wondered if Bush is drinking. There are rumors that he is. Whether he is or isn't, I don't see how he can live with himself.