cruelty

What Humans are Capable of Inflicting

Excerpt from "Witnessing" by Susan Sontag from the introduction to Don McCullin:

"I would suggest that it is a good in itself to acknowledge, to have enlarged, one's sense of how much suffering there is in the world we share with others. I would insist that anyone who is perennially surprised that depravity exists, who continues to experience disillusionment (even incredulity) when confronted with evidence of what humans are capable of inflicting in the way of gruesome, hands-on cruelties upon other humans has not reached moral or psychological adulthood.

No one after a certain age has the right to this kind of innocence, of superficiality, to this degree of ignorance, of amnesia.

We now have a vast repository of images that make it harder to preserve such moral defectiveness. Let the atrocious images haunt us. Even if they are only tokens and cannot encompass all the reality of a people's agony, they still serve an immensely positive function. The image says: keep these events in your memory."

See also: Don McCullin

Pain Bringers

A black poplar (populus nigra) tree with lightning damage

Facebook post by Jonathan Carroll (12.21.12):

"I now fully believe there are people who spread pain wherever they go. They aren’t necessarily bad like a Hitler or some other outsized villains. Often they are just you and me’s trying to live their lives. But somehow pain bringers are cursed with a dark talent for making things go bad; leaving behind them suspiciously long trails of angry broken hearts, or dreams, or plans...

Whether it’s conscious or unconscious they continuously mess life up, or make jobs harder for others to do, confuse where confusion is not necessary, grate where smoothness was once the norm before they arrived. It can be on a small scale or large. Whenever they enter a life or situation they tramp a kind of psychic mud onto clean floors that is difficult to clean and sometimes permanently stains.

Now and then these people are unquestionably mean or selfish, but not as a rule. Like those poor souls who are struck by lightning again and again for some mysterious reason throughout their lives, pain bringers only have to become involved in something and too frequently for it to be chance or coincidence, they cause it to go south in very negative ways.

I was thinking about this for a long time today and could specifically name three people I have known who fall into this category. You couldn’t identify it by looking at any of them. They’re often compelling, passionate, funny, capable, alluring, attractive, or even generous people. But bond with them in any other than a superficial way and you can almost be certain you’ll be hit by their lightning. Beyond any doubt it will leave some kind of nasty scorch mark on your psyche/heart/life/business/confidence/values/beliefs/soul or otherwise."

Right Through Every Human Heart

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, during his first months in prison in 1945"It was granted to me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good.

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhlemed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil."

~ Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, from The Gulag Archipelago

The Bureaucracy of Mass Murder

From Holocaust archive tells many new stories (Arthur Max, Associated Press):

Half a dozen buildings in Bad Arolsen, a German spa town, houses an immense archive of the victims of Nazi persecution. The documents are maintained by the International Tracing Service which is connected to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The fifty million pages of files include “scraps of paper, transport lists, registration books, labor documents, medical and death registers make reference to 17.5 million individuals caught up in the machinery of persecution, displacement, and death."

To operate history's greatest slaughter, the Nazis created a bureaucracy that meticulously recorded the arrest, movement and death of each victim. What documents survived Nazi attempts to destroy them were collected by the Allies to help people find missing relatives. The first documents were sent in 1946 to Bad Arolsen, and the administration was handed over to the Red Cross in 1955."

Anne Frank is listed among the names of Jews picked up from Amsterdam and transported to concentration camps.

“But most of the lives recorded in Bad Arolsen are known to none but their families. They are people like Cornelis Marinus Brouwenstijn, a Dutchman who vanished into the Nazi gulag at age 22 for illegally possessing a radio. In a plain manila envelope are his photo, a wallet, some snapshots, and a naughty typewritten joke about women in the army.”


"Over the years, the International Tracing Service has answered 11 million requests to locate family members or provide certificates supporting pension claims or reparations. It says it has a 56 percent rate of success in tracing the requested name. But the workload has been overwhelming. Two years ago it had a backlog of nearly half a million unanswered queries. Director Blondel says the number was whittled down to 155,000 this summer and will disappear by the spring of 2008. New queries have slowed to just 700 a month."

“Compounding the delay in releasing the files is the cumbrous makeup of the governing committee. Any decision on their future requires the assent of all 11 member nations — Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland and the United States.”

Archivist Sabine Stein: "Former inmates and their families want to see some tangible part of their history; they want to tell their stories. What I find most frustrating is that they have all these documents and they are just sitting on them."

Paul Shapiro, of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington:"What victims of these crimes fear the most is that when they disappear — and it's happening very fast now — no one will remember the names of the families they lost.”

PS This post has been conjuring up images of Anselm Kiefer's lead books (Zweistromland, Buch mit Flügeln).