This reading made me think of Stanley Milgram best known for his controversial experiment on obedience conducted in the 1960s during his professorship at Yale. Milgram was influenced by the events of the Holocaust, specifically the trial of Adolf Eichmann, in developing this experiment.
Both Wallace Shawn and Milgram were vilified for the presumption that “normal” people can participate in heinous acts given the right set of circumstances. A fact that says more about the audience and the public at large than it does about these men.
I was also reminded me of the man who ran the Auschwitz Birkenau death camps, and how it seems that Shawn is merely pointing out a fact that is indisputable. Rarely do you see the footage of the Rudolf Höss playing with his children in his yard with the walls of the concentration camp right behind them. Its rarity highlights an uncomfortable truth that Milgram and Shawn both point to: It is possible Evil deeds are perpetrated by “normal people”
Höss lived with his wife and four children in a house just yards from the crematorium in Auschwitz main camp, where some of the earliest killing experiments were conducted using the poisonous insecticide Zyklon B. Even, other SS personnel were also initially allowed to bring fiancees, wives, and children to live at the camp.
During his working days, Höss presided over the murder of more than a million people in the camp. However at night when he came home next door he lived the life of a solid, middle-class German husband and father. It is this ‘normality’ that makes Höss a much more terrifying figure than an unhinged brute like Amon Goeth.
As Shawn points out.
“Now there are people who will argue, No, he could not have loved his dog. There was nothing good or attractive about him, nothing true in what he said. And in my opinion the reason they make that argument is that if Hitler did not love his dog, if he did not ever say anything true, then we know that we all could have seen him for the monster he was. As soon as we admit that he might have loved his dog, then we begin to worry that perhaps we would not have seen how evil he was, perhaps we’re not superior to the people who listened to his speeches all those many years ago, perhaps we too might have been confused, perhaps, in fact, we’re confused right now. We lose our certainty that the people we admire now are not evil, that the arguments we believe in now, the things we say and the thoughts we think, are not evil, and we ourselves are not evil.”
It is only in the clarity we get from viewing through the lens of history that we see these people as the monsters they are. It was not in the fervor of the rally that Jason Wilton Wetzel who slapped East Carolina University student Adedayo Adeniyi recognized his evil, it was after confronted with his actions by law enforcement (albiet uncomfortably after the fact as well) that Wetzel is overcome with remorse. It may not even be due to his arrest. It may just be that he was confronted with his vitriol via grainy cell phone video.
“I can’t believe I did that. It was me, but I’m not a hateful man. I just got caught up. When I saw the video all over the news of me doing that to that young man, I was just disgusted with myself,”
It is not history that is reserved for the monsters, it is the present; And if you want to see what that evil looks like, we might need only to look in the mirror, or perhaps that hand held cell phone footage aimed directly at ourselves, “and that our self-examination might save a lot of people — possible all people — from being harmed by us.”