People rationalize cruelty and causing the suffering of others in a variety of ways, most of which creates some kind of distance between the individual and the victim. With wars in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance, the massive suffering of civilians, a child who loses her parents at a checkpoint because her parents appeared suspicious, or a family who loses a toddler in Afghanistan because a bomb goes astray becomes easy to dismiss as ‘part of war.’ By labeling it ‘part of war,’ it becomes something different, something more like an act of nature than an act of human cruelty. That’s an illusion — war is a choice, and if it’s not a war of direct self-defense, it is a choice with tremendous moral implications. Yet most people avoid thinking about that, it’s rationalized as ‘going after a dictator’ or ‘beating extremists,’ with the human costs somehow defined away by such abstractions. And it works. People think more about their own soldiers killed in war than the massive suffering of innocents, and even see support for such actions as patriotic and honorable. Not that these aren’t good people; rather, good people are able to justify and accept cruelty with the proper distance.
Another way to do it is ideology or ethnic pride. The genocides in Rwanda and Cambodia saw some of the most horrific acts of cruelty of the last century. In Rwanda Hutus killed Tutsis with machetes, often inflicting intense pain, targeting children, and using teens to do a lions’ share of the killing. Unlike a war like that in Iraq, where the media, politicians, and our own discourse collude to distance us from the reality of the killing, in Rwanda people were right there, killing other humans. In the Cambodian killing fields people were picked out and slaughtered, tortured, and brutalized just because they were ‘morally corrupt’ — they had an education, ties to the West, or lived in a city. Children again did a lot of the killing. The cruelty there was rationalized by defining the “other” as something less than truly human.
So what about a case like Josef Fritzl, the 74 year old Austrian arrested recently after it was discovered that he kept his daughter Elisabeth locked in an hidden cellar for twenty four years. When she was 19 he lured her down there, and then enslaved her, fathering a number of children with her, and not allowing her or three of her children to see the light of day. While some of the children were adopted by Fritzl’s family (as babies left on the door step), the oldest, Kerstin (19) has succumbed to severe health problems with kidney failure. Stefan, 18, walks with a
hunch because of how small the room was, while Felix, aged six, hardly walks. They don’t speak any real language well. Their skin lacks pigment due to lack of sunlight, and it’s unclear how the children will cope in the future — Kerstin has come out of her coma, and hopefully will survive.
The photo left is of Elisabeth from before she was enslaved. It’s hard to comprehend; a man took his own daughter, and not only abused her, but kept her as a slave and captive for over two decades. He watched as three of his children grew up living a life of horror, not understanding that what they were living was not normal. There is no degree of separation between the actor and the act, no way Fritzl could rationalize a way to not see what he was doing as being human cruelty. Yet apparently he lacks remorse as he obsessively follows this story from his Austrian cellar.
The only positive about this story was how it ended: a mother’s love for her daughter. As Kerstin’s condition worsened, she pleaded with her father to take her to the hospital, and for the first time since a brief escape in 1994, she got out of the cellar and saw sunlight as she loaded Kerstin to the car. Then, when she heard from television that Kerstin was near death, she demanded her father take her to the hospital to see her. He did, and of course police questioned her and incarcerated him.
Yet how can a person be capable of such acts to his own children and grandchildren? How can a person be so cold as to do such things, without even the veneer of some kind of rationalization through ideology, politics, or statecraft. Even more troubling is if we reverse the question: why are so many people willing to condone and support human cruelty when they have a rationalization? Do we have something inside us which allows us to separate our humanity from that of others, and maybe Josef Fritzl simply had an overabundance of that quality? Stalin, Pol Pot, the plotters of the Rwandan genocide…is evil best defined as the ability to separate oneself from others in a manner which denies the other any true human essence? Is it easier for some to support a war or a genocide because this ability is stronger in them than others, even if we all hold it?
And if that’s the case, how much is personal, how much biological, how much based on upbringing. Shockingly, the lions’ share of such captivity cases come from Austria — a tiny and otherwise idyllic country. Austria, of course, also gave us Adolf Hitler. Is there something about that culture that fostered such activities (most of the people who did this were born around the time of the Third Reich — Fritzl in 1934, with his formative years during the Nazi era). Even if only a tiny portion are susceptible, culture might help or hinder its occurrence. These are tough questions, and if any Austrians are reading this, I love your country and language and do not mean to suggest that this is a common Austrian trait — quite the contrary! What about the ability of Americans to support militarism. We have half the world’s military budget and do massive amounts of killing/destruction after all. Or what about martyrdom in the Arab world, and parents who speak proudly of children who have become suicide bombers. Do some cultures have in common a way to allow acceptance of human cruelty to become OK?
I don’t know if this reflection gives me anything about a politically incorrect series of questions which get the Americans, Arabs and Austrians mad at me (I’m obviously starting with the A’s). But at base I can’t help but look at a world filled with human cruelty and ask why people accept it, why people notice it sometimes and not others, and think about what this says about our nature and our cultures. A case like the Fritzl case simply defies any kind of rational explanation. The family supposedly (minus the father) is together and recovering. One can only wish them the best; so far, they have experienced the worst.