This Week’s Words

This is something I wrote in 2004.  It somehow seems timely this week.—J.A.R.

Our Capacity for Atrocity

In 1984 the highest aspirations of the civilized world were focused on the athletes competing in the XIV Olympic Winter Games in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia.  The best of the best had gathered in this European capital to push the limits of athletic achievement.  In six short years, Sarajevo was a city under siege in a war of ethnic cleansing, a place where ordinary citizens had to dodge a hail of snipers’ bullets just to cross a key intersection connecting two parts of the city.

How do we explain this?  What causes an entire ethnic group to descend into unspeakable horror?  On an individual level, how do we comprehend the motivations of a serial killer like Jeffrey Dahmer or of a mass murdered like Timothy McVeigh?

After a half century of pondering the fragility of civilization and the breakdowns in the socialization of specific individuals, my conclusion is this:  The capacity for atrocity is in all of us equally.

I did not say that we are equally likely to commit atrocity.  It would be absurd to eye the kindly old woman who lives across the street with the same suspicion generated by the arrival in the neighborhood of a self-professed Neo-Nazi.  The key word here is “capacity.”  My personal belief as a Christian is that this capacity comes from mankind’s fall from grace, but I don’t need to depend on a Christian world view to explain the reports of atrocity that confront us hourly in a 24-hour news world.

When I was growing up in the 50s and 60s, moral education was supported by the four-legged stool of  home, school, church, and community.  If not all of these influences were up to the challenge, a three-legged stool could still stand.  A two-legged stool cannot.  Remove enough supports for a moral upbringing, and we witness a crash.

My focus here is on the morality that permits civilization to work—a basic understanding of right from wrong and an understanding of such concepts as “Self-Control,” “The Common Good,” and (one completely out of favor now) “Self Denial.”

On its simplest level the morality that permits a civilized society hinges on the Golden Rule, a recognition that generally what is best for oneself is what is best for others.  It seems that for many people today the only rule is either “I will do unto others because I can, or “I will do unto others whatever gives me pleasure.”

The recent focus on the 60th anniversary of D-Day reminds us that human beings are also capable of heroic self-sacrifice.  Those tens of thousands of soldiers on the landing crafts approaching the beaches of Normandy knew that thousands of them would die once they landed.  What they were about to do offered them little or no personal gain.  Their driving motivation was “freeing the world of Nazi tyranny,” or, more specifically, “freeing Europe.”  I’m not sure that I would have had their courage, and I’m not sure that we would prevail on a D-Day today, but even the most selfish among us recognize that those soldiers weren’t fools.

The atrocities of the last few decades–including the horrific massacre in Rwanda just ten years ago, the more-recent school shootings, and the ethnic cleansing in Sudan at this very hour—should put to rest any notion that mankind is on some upward spiral of progress.  Given the lack of moral controls, and given the right stimulus, we are quite capable of slaughtering each other.

The capacity for atrocity is in all of us equally.  Remembering this might help us keep our anger from escalating into a murderous rage.  Forgetting this, as history has shown time after dismal time, lets all Hell break loose.

Copyright © 2004, 2017 by John Arthur Robinson

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