OPINION – Years ago, I watched a TV documentary on the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner’s Office. During the program, one of the deputy coroners was asked what he had learned during his years on the job.
After a brief pause, his answer was, “I’ve learned a lot about mankind’s capacity to be cruel to one another.”
That answer has been echoing in my mind as the news headlines proclaim yet another monstrous act of inhumanity in France taking scores of innocent lives last week.
Fear mongers around the globe were quick to seize upon the perpetrator’s Muslim-sounding name as proof that Islamic terrorism was to blame. This also gave them an opportunity to agitate for further antagonism toward all Muslims.
However, as veteran foreign correspondent Eric Margolis reported, there was more to this story.
Margolis described the assailant as a “demented 31-year-old man of Tunisian origin, Mohammed Bouhel, who had just lost his job and then his family through divorce.”
Suddenly, an event that had Fox News calling for a “world war” against Muslims began to look less like a calculated ISIS terror attack and more like a horrific crime of desperation and opportunity.
As Margolis explained:
But after all the bombast and hot air, it turned out that the crime in Nice was the product of a domestic crisis and one man’s suicidal impulses, rather like the three pilots who dove their aircraft into the ocean.
While pundits and political opportunists look for ways to spin such atrocities in favor of their chosen ideology, there’s something the rest of us could learn from it as well.
When someone commits an act of terrible inhumanity, we tend to comfort ourselves through assurances that the murderer must have been psychotic or otherwise mentally ill.
This reflects a desire to believe that a normal person could never behave so inhumanely. But the pages of history are filled with examples of ghastly atrocities carried out by “normal” folks who were simply performing their duties.
Those who actually murdered people by the millions most often did so as a matter of carrying out some sort of official public policy enacted by someone in authority over them.
American journalist Joseph Sobran once observed:
Notice that the rulers we call “monsters” and “psychopaths” are able to rely on countless “normal” people to execute their directives. That is what should shock us perpetually. It should shock us into examining our own souls. It’s also the best reason for limiting the state.
Viewed in this light, murderous acts should cause us to consider what might release the latent monster in each of us. This is not to suggest that we’re all a bunch of ticking time bombs waiting to go off but rather that we’re all perfectly capable of exhibiting a lack of humanity.
Sometimes that inhumanity takes the form of conscious indifference toward the suffering or official abuse of others. How far removed from the individuals who cause unnecessary death and destruction are those bystanders who behave as if nothing has happened since it isn’t happening to them?
None of us wants to believe that we could ever do truly monstrous things.
However, we’re often quite comfortable with acting like lesser monsters when we’re clothed in some form of authority. Just look at how poorly people tend to treat one another when they have a petty bureaucratic advantage over someone.
The truth is, our moral compasses need regular calibration to keep us on course.
There’s nothing weak or wrong with regular examination of our own hearts. It takes courage to evaluate what tempts us and to make corrections when necessary.
That courage is what gives us the strength to keep our monsters in check. It also allows us to learn from others.
Whether we’re confronted with the monstrous acts of a dictator or an individual murderer, there are lessons for us.
Joseph Sobran advised:
I try to imagine their temptations, not to exculpate them, but to implicate myself. Part of the greatness of Macbeth lies in the way it shows terrible crimes from the inside, without in the least excusing them.
One of the side benefits of actively keeping our own monsters in check is that we become more aware of opportunities to lift and comfort those around us. It also serves to keep our fears in check.
It’s easier than it sounds, as evidenced by the example of a woman who chose not to remain indifferent toward a distressed fellow traveler, resolving her confusion created by a language barrier, translating flight delays and then connecting with her in an airport terminal. The traveler in turn shared cookies. Differences among those there dissipated.
People doing kind things for one another can be infectious. Sometime, when sitting at the drive-thru, pay for the car behind you and see what happens.
Often, a small act of anonymous good will carry on for a dozen or more vehicles whose occupants happily do the same for those behind them.
We all need these reminders occasionally, lest the headlines convince us that the monsters are winning.
Bryan Hyde is a news commentator, radio host and opinion columnist in Southern Utah. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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