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Reflections on a Bestial Culture (III): The Monsters in Our Midst


June 11, 2012 - ...Many Americans now regard Nazi propaganda with sneering contempt: "How could educated, supposedly civilized people ever believe such contemptible nonsense?," they wonder in astonishment. And then they read an article like the one in the Times -- and they swallow it whole. One of the critical issues that explains Germans' acceptance of Nazi propaganda then, and Americans' acceptance of government propaganda now, is a particularly primitive form of tribalism...

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Reflections on a Bestial Culture (III): The Monsters in Our Midst

Arthur Silber

June 11, 2012

Part I: Reflections on a Bestial Culture, Ready and Eager for Slaughter

Part II: When the State Proclaims It Is Become Death

Imagine you are reading a new book about the ways in which the Nazis consolidated and expanded their grip on power in the mid- to late 1930s. The book focuses on a particular series of heinous acts committed by the Nazi regime, acts designed to instill terror in all Germans, and to ensure that the general population would obey government commandments, regardless of their nature.

In the course of your reading, you come across this passage:

It perhaps astonishes us today, but newspapers often published accounts of these firebombings, raids and murders while the campaign of terror was still underway. The officials of the special units responsible for these activities were happy to work with reporters, although it must be noted that the reporters who still had jobs were those who would write essentially the story the government wanted told. The reporters would occasionally, but gingerly, raise questions and offer mild criticisms about the special units and their actions; such questions and criticisms pleased Nazi Party officials, for they supported the belief -- one very dear to ordinary Germans, who always welcomed reassurances as to their moral worth and goodness -- that the press remained free, that what it printed was the truth.

So the officials of the special units openly acknowledged that some innocent people were being killed, and would unfortunately but inevitably continue to be killed in the future, but the officials stressed that such deaths were unavoidable given the nature of the evil threatening Germany. And the officials insisted that "the protection of innocent life was always a critical consideration," as one of them was quoted in a story that received wide notice. Of course, this could not possibly have been true, for the same official acknowledged that the government regarded all military-age males found in the areas of the firebombings and raids as Jews or other designated enemies of the regime. The official went on to question just how "innocent" these individuals could have been: "People in an area of known Jewish activity, or found with top enemy operatives, are probably up to no good," he said. "We all know that Jews are an insular, paranoid people. Innocent Germans don't associate with such types."

The claim of concern with "the protection of innocent life" was also belied by the Nazis' reliance on certain "patterns of behavior" in areas where the government suspected Jews were hiding. Another special units official was quoted as saying: "Everyone knows that Jews act and live in ways unique to them. When we see such behavior, there is little question that we are dealing with a very serious threat to the German people." Another official commented that such "signature strikes," as they were called, "killed a large number of suspected Jews and other enemies of Germany, even when Nazi analysts were not certain beforehand of their presence."

We read such statements today, and we are aghast. The disregard for the value of human life fills us with horror. How is it possible that millions of Germans could read such stories -- which quoted Nazi officials admitting that they regularly murdered "large numbers" of people who were only "suspected" of being Jews or other "enemies" of Germany -- and not rise up in protest and disgust? Nazi officials proclaimed their utter ignorance as to their own actions -- for what is the meaning of the admission that they "killed a "large number of suspected" enemies "even when Nazi analysts were not certain beforehand of their presence" other than ignorance of the basest kind? -- and Germans barely reacted.

And, of course, our horror increases when we consider the lies utilized to portray all Jews, together with other "undesirables," as "enemies" in the first place. The campaign of terror was premised on an endless series of lies, and then carried out in a state of complete ignorance as to the actual nature of their murderous actions. We can say, and it would hardly be engaging in exaggeration, that in one sense the Nazis had no idea what they were doing. That is undeniably true with regard to the targets of the killing program -- but in a very different sense, the Nazis knew what they were doing with enormous precision. They were terrorizing the general population; they were causing Germans to become accustomed to murder on a regular basis, murder that might strike anyone, anywhere, especially if they weren't careful about which streets they used to travel to and from work or to run errands, and which people they chose to associate with. At a certain point, the Nazis had no need to publish long lists of prohibited actions or associates: Germans knew that making a mistake would get them killed. For most Germans, it became easier to wait for the government to tell them what they were permitted to do. That was far easier for the government as well. And, importantly, the list of permitted actions could change from day to day, sometimes even from hour to hour. So ordinary Germans learned to survive in a state of constant terror, never knowing when death would come to visit them. Germans learned to do nothing, until and unless a party official told them they might.

So the program was staggeringly effective. From our vantage point, we can see that the systematic, regularized killing of innocents was hardly an unfortunate and regrettable consequence of a sincere effort to protect "good" German citizens from harm -- this despite the insistence of one high-ranking official that "our leader, and I think all of us here, don't like the fact that people have to die." Rather than being an unfortunate side effect, indiscriminate killing -- the unpredictable, daily murder of innocent human beings -- constituted the heart of the terror campaign. Today, we can appreciate that one of the gravest mistakes most Germans made was to believe the government's statements regarding the ultimate target of that campaign. In fact, the target was not Jews or other "enemies" of Germany -- but ordinary Germans themselves. The error cost them, and the world, very dearly.

We must always be profoundly grateful that such horrors are unknown to us in our own time.
Perhaps we can more clearly grasp the mechanisms involved, and the nature of the horror being perpetrated, when we alter the labels affixed to the various actors in this tragedy, and when we contemplate events safely removed from the present moment. We draw back in disgust from phrases such as, "an area of known Jewish activity," or "We all know that Jews are an insular, paranoid people" -- we recognize how evil such thoughts are -- but these phrases appeared in New York Times article about Obama's "Kill List." The worst details in my imagined book about heinous Nazi crimes all come directly from the Times piece.

For example:
Just days after taking office, the president got word that the first strike under his administration had killed a number of innocent Pakistanis. "The president was very sharp on the thing, and said, 'I want to know how this happened,í " a top White House adviser recounted

In response to his concern, the C.I.A. downsized its munitions for more pinpoint strikes. In addition, the president tightened standards, aides say: If the agency did not have a "near certainty" that a strike would result in zero civilian deaths, Mr. Obama wanted to decide personally whether to go ahead.

The presidentís directive reinforced the need for caution, counterterrorism officials said, but did not significantly change the program. In part, that is because "the protection of innocent life was always a critical consideration," said Michael V. Hayden, the last C.I.A. director under President George W. Bush.

It is also because Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good. "Al Qaeda is an insular, paranoid organization ó innocent neighbors donít hitchhike rides in the back of trucks headed for the border with guns and bombs," said one official, who requested anonymity to speak about what is still a classified program.
In Pakistan, Mr. Obama had approved not only "personality" strikes aimed at named, high-value terrorists, but "signature" strikes that targeted training camps and suspicious compounds in areas controlled by militants.

But some State Department officials have complained to the White House that the criteria used by the C.I.A. for identifying a terrorist "signature" were too lax. The joke was that when the C.I.A. sees "three guys doing jumping jacks," the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp, said one senior official. Men loading a truck with fertilizer could be bombmakers ó but they might also be farmers, skeptics argued.

Now, in the wake of the bad first strike in Yemen, Mr. Obama overruled military and intelligence commanders who were pushing to use signature strikes there as well.

"We are not going to war with Yemen," he admonished in one meeting, according to participants.

His guidance was formalized in a memo by General Jones, who called it a "governor, if you will, on the throttle," intended to remind everyone that "one should not assume that itís just O.K. to do these things because we spot a bad guy somewhere in the world.

Mr. Obama had drawn a line. But within two years, he stepped across it. Signature strikes in Pakistan were killing a large number of terrorist suspects, even when C.I.A. analysts were not certain beforehand of their presence.
And about drone strikes in Pakistan, from a story dated June 8:
As officials express public outrage at the Pakistani government for various perceived slights, President Obama has been authorizing more and more aggressive levels of drone strikes against the tribal areas, further escalating the war in the area.

A top US official quoted in McClatchy but unnamed said that the administrationís attitude toward Pakistanís opposition to the strikes is "what do we have to lose?" UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay has called for a UN probe into the indiscriminate killing of civilians in the strikes.

The US has claimed that the strikes are extremely accurate and based on the best intelligence possible. Despite this, the drone strikes in Pakistan have killed well over 2,000 people since President Obama took office, and fewer than 50 of the victims have ever been conclusively named by officials.
Another passage from the Times article about the "Kill List":
Some critics of the drone strategy still vilify Mr. Brennan, suggesting that he is the C.I.A.ís agent in the White House, steering Mr. Obama to a targeted killing strategy. But in office, Mr. Brennan has surprised many former detractors by speaking forcefully for closing GuantŠnamo and respecting civil liberties.

Harold H. Koh, for instance, as dean of Yale Law School was a leading liberal critic of the Bush administrationís counterterrorism policies. But since becoming the State Departmentís top lawyer, Mr. Koh said, he has found in Mr. Brennan a principled ally

"If John Brennan is the last guy in the room with the president, Iím comfortable, because Brennan is a person of genuine moral rectitude," Mr. Koh said. "Itís as though you had a priest with extremely strong moral values who was suddenly charged with leading a war."

The president values Mr. Brennanís experience in assessing intelligence, from his own agency or others, and for the sobriety with which he approaches lethal operations, other aides say

"The purpose of these actions is to mitigate threats to U.S. personsí lives," Mr. Brennan said in an interview. "It is the option of last recourse. So the president, and I think all of us here, donít like the fact that people have to die. And so he wants to make sure that we go through a rigorous checklist: The infeasibility of capture, the certainty of the intelligence base, the imminence of the threat, all of these things."
Many Americans now regard Nazi propaganda with sneering contempt: "How could educated, supposedly civilized people ever believe such contemptible nonsense?," they wonder in astonishment. And then they read an article like the one in the Times -- and they swallow it whole.

One of the critical issues that explains Germans' acceptance of Nazi propaganda then, and Americans' acceptance of government propaganda now, is a particularly primitive form of tribalism. I have explored in detail how tribal identity is instilled in a very young child in two articles: "Creating the Next Generation," and "Learning to Hate 'The Other.'" I will set modesty aside for the moment and say that, if I have identified one issue that may prove to be of special value, it is my analysis of the ways in which the formation of a tribal identity is inextricably and inevitably tied to Alice Miller's discussion of how the most commonly accepted methods of raising children -- and teaching them the primacy of obedience to authority above all -- severely impair or even destroy a child's sense of genuine, autonomous personal identity. In the tribalism series, I discussed an incident recounted by a mother involving her young son, an incident which made her proud and happy. As I explained, I chose the story not because it revealed unusual, especially horrifying cruelty (physical, psychological or both) -- but for the opposite reason: because this kind of incident is so completely ordinary, because it occurs millions of time a day, all over the world. In the fourth installment of the tribalism series, I wrote:
Keep in mind what I consider the critical essence of that story: by means of emotional intimidation and blackmail, the mother forces her young son to agree with her own judgments about matters the child cannot possibly understand. The mother hasn't presented any sort of argument, or encouraged the child to analyze her argument independently to determine whether he agrees. The story makes it clear that this kind of incident involving the same specifics has occurred before. Remember the end of the story:
Of course I realized that this could be an excellent "teachable moment" about impulse control, so I knelt down and spoke to him. I told him that I was very disappointed, that I really didn't like what he did. I asked him again why he did it, and he still didn't answer. Then I asked him "Do you know what we call people who know what they are doing is bad, but do the bad thing anyway?"

He replied, "Democrats."
In the original story, the despised "Others" are labelled Republicans; I altered the designation to emphasize the fact that the label is of no significance at all. What is of crucial importance is the method being taught to the child. The young boy knows his mother is furious with him, and he is terrified that her love and approval might be withheld or withdrawn. Although he cannot understand these issues as an adult would, the child is aware that he cannot survive without that love and approval. As a result, he will say whatever his mother demands: what he is learning, above all else, is the primary importance of obedience. The boy joins in his mother's denunciation of "The Other" of the moment. In this manner, the child's basic tribal identity is forged. Our tribe is good, their tribe is bad. But the child will not be able to provide a reasoned explanation as to why this is true (and as I discuss in Part III, it is not true in that form). The child embraces these judgments because he is forced to -- and he is forced to by means of his mother's emotional manipulation.

I offered one example of the results this leads to in adult behavior in Part II, the emailer who praised a post of mine and wanted to write one like it, but didn't do so because of his fear that he would be "regarded as having lost [his] mind." The prospect of his tribe's disapproval meant more to him than what he himself considered to be the truth. In a general sense, you see this behavior many times a day in our political commentary; most writing by bloggers falls exclusively into this category. Rarely will you find a carefully presented argument as to why one particular policy is better than another. For the most part, our political writers start with the assumption that their political affiliation and its associated views are unquestionably correct. Their writing consists of emotional signifiers to other members of their political tribe. Persuasion is not the goal; instead, the purpose is the reinforcement and reaffirmation of tribal identity, and reinforcement of the view that one's own tribe is "good," while all opposing tribes are "bad" in various ways and degrees. ...

Two aspects of the psychological dynamics I am discussing are of critical importance; both of them have many effects on adult behavior. I've already discussed the first aspect to some extent: the manner in which those ideas that the child comes to embrace are not "ideas" in any genuine sense. The child is not encouraged to explore a subject at his own speed and on his own terms (with guidance from adults, to be sure, but without subjecting the child to fear and intimidation should he show interest in the "wrong" ideas); instead, the child is offered slogans and labels devoid of content, and pressured into accepting the views his primary caregivers consider to be the "correct" ones.

The other aspect is just as crucial, and it concerns the child's sense of personal identity. All of us need this sense of personal identity in at least two respects: we require a fundamental sense of self-worth, and we need a belief in our ability to function in the world. We need to believe that we are both worthy and capable of living successfully. To the extent our sense of personal identity is not founded in our functioning as autonomous, independent, genuine individuals, our personal identity will be replaced by another kind of identity. We must have some kind of identity; the only question is what kind it will be. We might think of the issue this way: to the extent we don't have a truly independent identity, we will have a tribal identity. This is what the mother is teaching her son in our story; this is the lesson taught by the vast majority of parents, with only the specific labels changing from one instance to another.
Concerning the lessons the mother is teaching her child, I had earlier written the following in "Learning to Hate 'The Other'":
This particular story, together with the patterns of thought to which it gives rise, presents still further issues that merit analysis. Whether we call the "bad" people Republicans or Democrats, this perspective entirely rules out the possible existence of those individuals who might hold different political convictions in good faith. The "bad" people are not simply mistaken or misguided. They are bad. Not only are they bad, but they know they're bad. Despite this knowledge -- which the accuser knows the "bad" people to possess with the certainty of the True Believer -- the "bad" people persist in their evil. The young boy in this story certainly does not want to be "bad" or evil, and he desperately does not want his mother to think he is. So of course, the boy will say whatever his mother demands. He will obey.

We might very well wonder whether the mother believes her own condemnation. It would certainly appear that she does. Consider the insurmountable obstacle this belief represents. Such a belief makes impossible the idea of changing the opinions of those with whom one disagrees about issues of any significance. For according to this perspective, we aren't faced with a problem of knowledge or understanding. Those who disagree aren't innocent in their error, if it is error: they are "bad," and they know they are "bad." So what is one to do in political battles? Try to overwhelm your opponents by sheer numbers? If you can't do that, what then? Eliminate them?
I remind you, as forcefully as I can, that this lesson is being taught to a young child with regard to members of an opposing political party. As I go on to discuss in that essay, this becomes the manner in which adults view their political opponents: this is how Democrats view Republicans, and how Republicans view Democrats. (Use conservative and liberal or other labels instead, and the phenomenon is the same.) And I provide examples to prove the point.

When these patterns of thought and behavior are instilled in young children, they are rarely altered later in life. And the mechanism is easily transferred to other contexts. Today, our government tells us that certain individuals are "terrorists" or even "suspected terrorists," and the hatred the child learned to feel for "The Other" is triggered. Moreover, the government hurls the accusation on the basis of scant or non-existent evidence -- and it offers the condemnation virtually exclusively on the basis of "intelligence." But -- and almost no one else will tell you this -- "intelligence" is almost uniformly wrong. Even when it is right, it is not the basis for decisions of policy. This is a vitally significant point, so I will cover it in more detail shortly. (See "Played for Fools Yet Again" and "You, Too, Can and Should Be an 'Intelligence Analyst,'" if you wish to get started.)

But the child was taught that facts, logic and argument don't matter. What matters is obedience, including obedience to the edicts of one's own tribe. For the Nazis, the enemy was Jews and other designated groups. For us, it is "terrorists," a term used without regard to evidence or specific meaning. But as devoted, obedient tribalists, we know that "terrorists" are bad. We know they mean to kill us. So we need not wonder what the answer to my earlier question is.

About the mother's lesson in the story, and what she taught her son must be done about the despised Other, I asked: If all else fails, what do we do? "Eliminate them?"

In reply to the urgent prompting of government propagandists, most Americans enthusiastically scream: "Yes!!!"

Yet we insist on telling ourselves, in the manner of my imaginary author writing about crimes from another, but still recent, era: "We must always be profoundly grateful that such horrors are unknown to us in our own time."

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