American Culture

I'll take a good atrocity over slavery any day

Got a hot atrocity? Bring it on and I’ll try to wrap my mind around it. For example, I read four books on the Rwanda massacres starting with We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. Philip Gourevitch’s book may have been single-handedly responsible for positioning the tragedy front and center before American intelligentsia.

I admit, however, that I almost met my match in Shake Hands with the Devil, one of the most heartbreaking books you’ll ever read. Now a Canadian senator, its author, General Romeo Dallaire, you may recall, served as head of the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda, where his hands were tied by the severe limitations imposed by the UN on both the force’s numbers and its mandate.

I’ve also read more than my share of books on the Holocaust. Among my favorites: Robert Jay Lifton’s cheery tome, Nazi Doctors.

More recently, I’ve been studying the extremes to which the allies took bombing in World War II: Think Dresden, Hamburg, and Tokyo. Two outstanding recent books on the subject are Among the Dead Cities by A.C. Grayling and Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker. Then, of course, there’s Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which leads us to nuclear weapons.

Actually, it’s not nuclear weapons that I like to contemplate but the nature of the people who ponder — and promulgate, as well as propagate — nuclear weapons. For example, Mr. Megadeath himself, the late Herman Kahn. He was foremost among the men who, writes Louis Menand in a 2005 New Yorker review of two books on Kahn, “made it their business to think about the unthinkable, and to design the game plan for nuclear war.”

Menand cites the opening chapter of Kahn’s book On Thermonuclear War, which contains a “table titled ‘Tragic but Distinguishable Postwar States.’ It has two columns: one showing the number of dead, from two million up to a hundred and sixty million,” which is one category of the postwar states. Meanwhile, the other column shows the other category: “the time required for economic recuperation, from one year up to a hundred years.”

Yes, the strata of data are “tragic but [never fear] distinguishable.” But there is such a thing as putting too fine a point on it. Would that the degree to which that kind of theorizing numbs the soul led instead to a new Nuclear Freeze.

Recently, however, my son’s middle-school class has been learning about slavery, a subject which I somehow missed, either because my academic background is limited or, as you’ll see, because of unconscious avoidance. My reaction to the introduction of slavery into my consciousness (thanks to the need to quiz my son for his test) is two-fold –- flip sides of the same sentiment, actually –- feeling bad for my son, as well as myself, because we have to deal with this sorrowful subject.

Why is studying slavery more dispiriting to me than exploring an atrocity? Perhaps because it’s not an eruption of violence, a historical spasm, an aberration, like Nazi Germany and Rwanda. Instead, for hundreds of years slavery was a way of life fundamental to national economies. Many in Nazi Germany may have been in the grips of mass hysteria. But acquiescing to slavery required cultures to exist in a trance state for hundreds of years.

In the United States, certain plantation owners spurned physical punishment and no doubt formed a self-image of themselves as benevolent for providing care for “savages” who they considered childlike. As well, some believed they offered heathens a chance for salvation by introducing them to Christianity.

Making an individual your beneficiary is one thing; owning him or her another. Nor does any justification whatsoever exist for uprooting humans from their homelands and packing them like, yes, sardines on slave ships (see accompanying images).

Today, however, the tables have turned. While slavery, though still extant, has become abhorrent to us, most of us turn a blind eye to massacres, which, for a while, were a way of life in Iraq.

5 replies »

  1. “But acquiescing to slavery required cultures to exist in a trance state for hundreds of years.”

    “While slavery, though still extant, has become abhorrent to us, most of us turn a blind eye to massacres, which, for a while, were a way of life in Iraq.”

    I would argue that the alleged “hysteria” is wrong. It is more the “trance state” accounting for atrocity, but even that is hunting for exculpatory arguments to alleviate the guilt that populations are complicit, responsible and morally corrupt.

    Like slavery, atrocity has co-existed during that same time period. The “savages” even made it into the Declaration of Independence. They were exterminated with glee by the “heroes” who founded the nation on the corpses of millions of natives.

    Very little has changed, except that the propaganda and the technology have become more sophisticated. The morality is hovering around the same place. As the “savages” had to be saved, educated, dealt with by any means necessary, today the “terrorists” and those who “harbor them” have the same place in the script.

    Who’s a “terrorist?”

    Anyone the government says is one.

    Who “harbors” them?

    Anyone the government points a finger at.

    Very little has changed, as the masses are in no way calling for an end to this bogus “war on terrorism.” They don’t care to investigate the reality, and they don’t care if little brown foreigners half a world away are bombed like roaches.

    That’s my take on it, anyway. I wouldn’t mind being proved wrong.

  2. I believe it is unfair to compare institutional slavery to the plight of those in Iraq or Afghanistan. Although I believe time and distance have insulated us from the true impact each has on our moral compass.

    I think the statement about a culture acquiescing to the existence of slavery is right on the money. I cannot imagine living in that time, but had I lived then, I would not be the same man I am now, as I would have been a product of that culture.

    For instance, the great emancipator himself didn’t think of blacks as equals at all, yet Abe Lincoln is regarded as a pillar of civil rights. This doesn’t detract from the courage he showed or the correctness of his decisions, but it really underscores the prevailing attitude of the day. Read the following quote and remember- this was as progressive as it got back then.

    From the 4th Lincoln-Douglas debate: “I am not, or have ever been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races….of making voters or jurors of Negroes, not of qualifying them to hold office, not to intermarry with white people. There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races from living on terms of social or political equality”

    (Taken from the book 1858 by Bruce Chadwick:

    Atrocities committed in a theater of war are horrible. While I am sure our government has lost its way on issues like Gitmo, most often the immoral acts are the result of individual or small unit actions taken under extraordinary circumstances that few others can comprehend. Attempting to raise these atrocities to the same level as slavery only diminishes slavery’s horror.

  3. I disagree with Bob. Lincoln’s statement wasn’t a high water mark of mid-19th century progressivism (aka humanity). There were plenty of people, famous and not, who were as progressive in their thinking then as we are now, and it ill serves history to forget them. I’ve never been sure how much of Lincoln’s racism was genuine and how much was his trying to cover the political distance between himself and the white-supremacist Democrats of the time and possibly head off civil war. However, Bob thinks too poorly of them and too well of us.
    I believe the mentality that allowed slavery in that era is the same as that has allowed war crimes, genocide and labor abuses in ours: laziness, greed, cruelty, selfishness, and willful ignorance. Slavery and its aftermath affects our nation still because it was never atoned for. Slavery was a monstrous wrong, and the U.S., especially the South, has never faced that; slavery and Jim Crow were maintained because they made life easier and richer for so many, especially those in power.
    In the same way, the U.S. tolerates war crimes and massacres and virtual slave labor in sweatshops and migrant fields because not to do so might inconvenience us; it might cost us money, cause us to work harder, not allow us to bring home one more pair of Nikes.
    Germans rationalized their participation in the system that made the Holocaust for the same reasons; it was easier than fighting it and they could probably escape blame.
    If we’re not actively fighting the wrongs of our time to the best of our ability, then we are complicit in them, and I don’t exclude myself. People have always been able to tell right from wrong; it’s the doing something about it that’s the challenge.
    BTW, to say that our modern massacres and war crimes are the result of small unit actions and battlefield stress is naive at best. DU munitions, the reliance on air attack rather than more discriminate ground forces, the turning of cities into free-fire zones, the infliction of embargoes that kill millions of children are decisions made at the top. Typically, it’s only the rank and file trigger pullers, the “bad apples”, who get the blame and punishment. Because to punish the powerful in our culture is too “difficult” for most of us.

  4. Since Nuremberg, the “leaders” who wage aggressive war have been responsible for all the atrocities committed in the conflicts.

    During the trial, the chief American prosecutor, Robert H. Jackson, stated:

    “To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

    War has known consequences. That’s why it is illegal.

    “While I am sure our government has lost its way on issues like Gitmo, most often the immoral acts are the result of individual or small unit actions taken under extraordinary circumstances that few others can comprehend.”

    The entire war enterprise is immoral. Those who lied their way into starting this war should be incarcerated and face war crimes charges. Period. The double standard that the “superpower” can bomb with impunity is not so hard to see by the rest of the world. The “leaders” commit war crimes that they punish other leaders for committing, the same offences, and oftentimes much, much worse. At least 1.2 million Iraqi civilians have been killed since 2003, and the total since 1990 is something near 3 million. These are Crimes Against Humanity, and the US State Department would be calling them that IF some other nation had perpetrated them.