Turning Away from Evil

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Many survivors of Nazi concentration camps and the Holocaust wrote memoirs to permanently record what had happened with a belief that such atrocity should never happen again. Indeed, many of these are recommended and required texts. Each story is similar, and each story is different, they all capture humanity and showcase it being stripped away.

For several years I felt compelled to read the stories from as many survivors as possible; it felt like an obligation to remember, acknowledge, and to faithfully preserve history. It was only when I visited Powell’s Books, the largest used/new independent bookstore in the world, that I realized I could not read them all in one lifetime.

Many authors credited their survival to the desire to make sure they lived to tell the story. If it was so important to them that the world know what happened, then reading seemed the least I could do.

The banality of evil was a term coined by Hannah Arendt to capture the ordinary and mundane daily lives people lead while atrocities were being committed. For example, you read about the stench of death and the impossibility of ignoring the smell; how could the people of Auschwitz pretend they did not know what was going on?

For decades researchers have tried to answer questions about “how could this happen?” Stanley Milgram famously tested the obedience to authority even when in conflict with conscience with experiments designed to determine the willingness of regular people to harm others. Many had characterized the willingness to commit atrocities under orders from Nazis as just part of the German nature; Milgram proved at Yale that Americans were equally likely to hurt or even kill when ordered to do so by an authority in a white lab coat (no one was actually hurt, but the dozens of tested subjects were convinced they were ordered to give them shocks of increasing voltage, even lethal levels, and most complied).

It does not take a case like South Africa has now brought to the International Court of Justice to beg many of these questions. South Africa is accusing Israel of genocidal acts, according to the charges, during the

“three-month war in Gaza, more than 23,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children, have been killed, lawyers told the top United Nations court. Most of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million has been displaced, and an Israeli blockade severely limiting food, fuel and medicine has caused a humanitarian ‘catastrophe.’”

Genocide is a serious charge, and crimes against humanity have a burden of proof like all others. I am troubled by even more latent questions; if it is not ruled genocide does that make it somehow ok?

Given South Africa’s history and troubles with apartheid it is easy to see why a turning away from evil is important. An ancient Greek word, metanoia, tells of such a change of heart. Whether or not they prove their criminal case is less important to me in this sense than the change in outlook.

For decades I have heard people say things like “war is inevitable,” not just in Gaza, but anywhere. They use their feelings of inevitability to justify apathy and inaction.

Born Hanns Chaim Mayer, Jean Améry changed his name to a French sounding anagram of his family name after the holocaust. It was a disassociation from German culture and alignment with French sensibilities.

Améry had been tortured by the Nazis and was a prisoner in Auschwitz. He was a political prisoner first, but also a Jew. His memoir painfully shares how he was broken. He survived (if we can say that) after being liberated from Bergen-Belsen in April 1945 but committed suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills on October 17, 1978; he could not take living in the world that let it happen.

It’s uncomfortable to read and learn about atrocity; most people choose to turn away. In the U.S. there have been efforts to ban or remove books like “Night” by Elie Wiesel, “Sophie’s Choice” by William Styron, and “The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank from educational reading lists, further evidence that for some people the truth is too uncomfortable to talk about.

But there is another turning away from evil we all should embrace. It rests in our complicity and acceptance with violent force, occupation, and war. Israel dropped 6,000 bombs on Gaza within the first six days of war (for comparison, that is about what the U.S. dropped in Afghanistan in 2019) how many of those bombs do you want to assume responsibility or pay for?

In the first six weeks of the war Israel deployed more than 22,000 U.S.-produced bombs on Gaza, according to intelligence figures provided to Congress. Individually and collectively, we need to stop supporting it with our tax dollars and silent complicity, or, preferably, just stop it. Forget ceasefires, let us finally put an end to war before war puts an end to us.

Wim Laven has a PhD in International Conflict Management, he teaches courses in political science and conflict resolution, and is on the Executive Boards of the International Peace Research Association and the Peace and Justice Studies Association.