Column by tzo.
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To anyone who has seen or read The Reader (a synopsis of the relevant part of the story is here), one of the main questions raised in the story is, "What should be done with Hanna?"
Was she responsible for her actions even if she was so thoroughly indoctrinated so as to be completely confused by the charges against her? She asked more than once, while seemingly lost in the maze of what to her were purely Kafkaesque proceedings, "What would you have done?"
And for the majority of folks who answer “Well, I certainly wouldn’t have done that,” the results of Stanley Milgram’s experiments may suggest otherwise.
We can sympathize to a certain extent with the character who is so obviously unable to understand what she might have been able to do differently, but then again, everyone knows that killing people is wrong, no matter what it says in the job description. Right?
So was she a reasoning adult who had simply voluntarily participated in an inhumane profession? Or was she a person who was from the very beginning of her life taught that the most important thing she could do was to follow orders because without a strict hierarchical organization, society would crumble, and this was in fact the social norm in which she was immersed all her life? In other words, was she actually competent to stand trial?
People now look back and shake their heads, unable to understand how such a mindset could ever have taken hold on such a grand scale. Could it seem incomprehensible today because children are now raised to respect human life at least to the extent that "just doing my job" is understood to be insufficient justification for guarding a locked door that keeps a group of arbitrarily-chosen people imprisoned until they can be systematically killed?
Yes, at least society has progressed now to the point to where the people who have jobs guarding locked doors that keep arbitrarily-chosen non-aggressing "criminals" imprisoned do so only until the “rule-breakers” can be released back into society after paying their "debts." And at least the systematic killing of arbitrarily-chosen people now proceeds from afar, with buttons, joysticks, and explosive robotic delivery systems.
<sarcasm> In other words, we have become waaaay more civilized since then. </sarcasm> But the actual point is, it is the indoctrination that children are exposed to that creates these ethical blind spots that persist into adulthood and are guaranteed to be exploited by the sociopathic elements in society.
Imagine today an IRS agent or a drone operator in the dock instead of Hanna. Wouldn't they be absolutely adrift on a Kafkaesque sea concerning any ethical charges leveled against them? It was legal! It was my job! I would have been fired! I had to feed my kids! I was doing it for the good of society! What in the hell are you talking about? Why am I even here?
Well, the plain fact of the matter is that when a generation of children is indoctrinated with a set of ideas that creates in their minds external authorities that operate for the good and for the necessity of everyone, and societal norms (the actions of the adults who previously received the same indoctrination as children) reinforce those ideas, then that society is statistically guaranteed that at least a fair percentage of those children will grow up to become the unsuspecting tools of sociopaths. And these naïve adults will actually believe very strongly that they are performing vital services for the good of society, when in fact they are achieving the exact opposite.
Eventually, after everything goes so horribly wrong that the entire evil system collapses, then it is oh, so easy to place those naïfs into the dock and ask them, What is so hard to understand, K., about the fact that you willingly participated in harming or killing people merely because someone told you to do it? How can you not understand that it is wrong to do that? What in the world could you possibly have for an excuse?
The main difference between now and then seems to be that today’s sociopaths who claim the powers of external authority have learned to put more distance between the bureaucratic employees and those who are to be assaulted and executed by them. It becomes more difficult to correlate the modern button-pushers with the traditional key-holders, and any attempt to do so is greeted with reflexive shouts of "Godwin's Law, you lose!" Here is a rebuttal that signals the end of rational thought and conversation, because any proposed correlation between a DEA agent’s armed raid on a home where there are “suspected drug users” and a Nazi concentration camp guard is pure hyperbole.
But it is not hyperbole to suggest that the indoctrination of children to obey external authority is ultimately the enabler of all the evils that occur on the grandest of scales. This is the correlating factor that ties together the full gamut of State-sanctioned abuses that range from petty theft to murder. Sure, if children are taught that things like holocausts are bad, then they can identify and understand such unethical events and condemn them. But this is not nearly enough. In fact, it does not even begin to eliminate the root from which spouts the plethora of varied abuses and pogroms available to the enterprising sociopath.
Problem: Killing six million people systematically in camps is called "holocaust" and is unacceptable. Solution: Kill millions systematically but at a distance and over a greater period of time and it is no longer labeled "holocaust."
Indoctrinate children to obey external authority, and the sociopaths will develop a myriad of ways to use those children after they become adults to destroy the lives of others in socially-acceptable manners. Later blaming the brainwashed dupes must make the sociopaths chuckle indeed as they themselves actually preside over and judge the hapless plebes who appear before them in the docks.
The trials are merely a cue to the sociopaths that a new system must be invented, because society no longer will accept this particular form of slaughter because they actually caught a glimpse of the insides of one of the abattoirs. Jesus, destroy that monstrous thing!
Sure, say the sociopaths. Done and done. That particular facility is now offline, so don't let the thought of it trouble you ever again. Come now, and let us begin to Never Forget™.
The problem is not Never Forgetting, it is Never Learning. And the lesson is so, so, simple. No one has the right to trespass against another's person or property. Ever. Now go and write that on your mental blackboard 100 times, or 1,000 times, or however many times it takes until you fully understand it and agree with it. No, not 83% or even 99% of it. 100%. Now you have become the teacher. Pass it on.
Putting bewildered pawns on trial after the inevitable next carnage is not the solution, as evidenced by the long list of avowed Never Agains that keep repeating themselves again and again. Only when the atrocities are accurately identified for what they are—manifestations of the belief in external authority that must be obeyed—and only after the rejection of that false doctrine occurs, will that ancient root of superstition finally be severed.
In the meantime, as the world waits for that day to arrive, well-meaning people continue to act in ways that will ultimately make their grandchildren shake their heads with sad wonder at how barbaric the world was way back at the beginning of the 21st Century.
Or so one can hope.