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.