Friday, August 09, 2019

There have been several books that have changed or shaped my outlook on life. One of them is Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland by Christopher Browning. The book is a masterpiece of historical research that focuses in tightly on a relatively small contingent of German soldiers. But in doing so it reveals some very disturbing universal truths. 

Reserve Police Battalion 101 was comprised of middle-aged working-class men who were drafted into service in the latter part of WWII. Their job was to go through Poland, village-by-village, round up the Jewish residents, and execute them. The men in Reserve Police Battalion 101 were not rabid Nazis or even particularly anti-semitic. They were just "ordinary men" following orders and doing their job. They killed tens of thousands of Jews.

There is a quote, falsely attributed to filmmaker Werner Herzog, that goes like this: "Dear America: You are waking up, as Germany once did, to the awareness that 1/3 of your people would kill another 1/3, while 1/3 watches." Although the origins of the statement are murky, the statement itself rings with clarity. As the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrated, a majority of people will go along with evil and injustice if it is mandated by "the authorities." Only a minority possess a strong enough internal moral compass to enable them to refuse to participate, or to speak out against it.

U.S. history is filled with atrocity, if one chooses to not gloss over it. The perpetrators of atrocity usually do their best to keep their actions out of the general public view. Germans who lived in the lovely village of Dachau claimed that they had no idea of the depravity that was occuring at the concentration camp on the outskirts of town. Throughout the 20th century we average Americans have generally remained ignorant or apathetic about the atrocities in Central and South America, the Middle-East, Africa, Asia and elsewhere, committed with our government's backing.

I suspect we are witnessing the seeds of atrocity within our own borders and it is in plain sight. The immigration raids this week at food processing plants in Mississippi were, from what I've read, the largest in U.S. history. The Obama administration used to go after the business owners, with the overarching concern being prevention of the exploitation of undocumented immigrant workers. The Trump administration has shifted the focus to go after "the least of these"--the workers themselves and their children who are separated and left abandoned. The immigration raids in Mississippi were intentionally designed by the Trump administration to be highly visible media spectacles. The goal was to please Trump's base of supporters and to terrorize undocumented immigrants throughout the U.S. The message was clear: get out or likewise risk being rounded up and incarcerated and deported and have your children traumatized and your home and all that you've worked hard to attain left behind.

Hannah Arendt, who reported on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, coined the term "the banality of evil." Eichmann, and others like him, she observed, tended to not be sadistic arch-villians but rather "terrifyingly normal" bland bureaucrats who managed to disengage themselves from the reality of the evil they were responsible for. Eichmann, Arendt observed, was actually a rather shallow person, a joiner, a follower rather than a leader, an unimaginative and somewhat ignorant person more concerned with job security than with ideology. This description also applies to the men of Police Battalion 101 and, I suspect, to many of the men and women of the department of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol and their parent bureaucracy, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.


Post a Comment

<< Home