If I had a rocket launcher

22 05 2011

The invasion of Poland was almost unbearable.

I knew it was awful, but awful only in a general way; the opening didn’t linger on the atrocities, but the details—the killing of 55 Polish prisoners here, the burning of village after village there, the many smug justifications for murder—knit the details of death into the whole cloth of invasion and mass murder.

If I didn’t know how it all ended, I told a friend, I don’t think I could read it.

I’m on the last book of Richard Evans’s trilogy of the Third Reich, finally cracking it open after it sat on my desk for a few weeks.

I raced through The Coming of the Third Reich (useful for its doleful portrayal of the Weimar Republic) and read with fascination The Third Reich in Power, but The Third Reich at War, well, the premonitions of the first two books are borne out in the last. It will get worse, much worse, before it ends; it cannot be said to get better.

Reading about genocide and slaughter has never been fun, but I used to be able to do so without flinching. I remember reading in high school  Anne Nelson’s dispatches in Mother Jones about the Salvadoran death squads; I close my eyes, and I can still conjure up the accompanying photo of bloody heads on bench. College was apartheid and nuclear war, and grad school, human rights abuses generally.

The University of Minnesota maintained an archive of human rights material in its law school library. I’d trudge over there from my West Bank (yes, that’s what it was called) office and read reports of the massacre at the finca San Francisco, of soldiers smashing babies’ heads and slicing up their mothers. Reports of torture in Nicaragua and disappearances in Argentina and killing after killing after killing in Guatemala.

It was awful, but I could take it, and since I could take it, I felt a kind of duty to do so. There was nothing I could do, hunched over these documents in the back corner of the library, but to read them, to read as many of them as I could.

I no longer have the compulsion, or the arrogance, or frankly, even the stomach, any more to do so. I still think the reading matters, the knowledge matters, even if I can’t precisely say why, but it is so hard, almost too hard, to keep reading. To read is to conjure these lives, these men and women and children, and watch them murdered all over again.

It was like that with the footage of the airplanes hitting the World Trade Center, and of the two towers collapsing into themselves. It seemed important to watch, to see, to know what I could, but after that, it just seemed obscene, as if the replays were killing people all over again.

I know that’s not how it works—I am aware of at least a few laws of physics—but the necessity of witness is found precisely in the knowledge of what is witnessed, that is, in the knowledge of the killing of over 2500 people. I don’t want that knowledge dulled or forgotten.

Maybe that’s why it’s so difficult now to read of atrocity: the outrage has been so stretched and worn that in too many places the bare horror is all that remains. The outrage is still there—reading (again) of the T4 extermination program, I raged against the ideology of rassenhygiene and “lives not worth living”—but it no longer protects as it once did. Its use as a buffer is gone; the horror gets  close.

Still, the knowledge matters, so I read what I can when I can. It is the least, the very least, I can do.


Actions

Information

4 responses

23 05 2011
dmf

i have similar experiences/memories from school years and have done much work with trauma survivors, including some work with a holocaust/genocide center, so i appreciate what you’re saying but i don’t know, esp.in terms of past events how much exposure of our souls is really useful or necessary, not that there will be one answer to this, but we do have to live as well as remember.

23 05 2011
absurdbeats

Thanks for this, but given my interest in, for lack of a better term, the human condition, and specifically how we do and don’t live with one another, looking at the worst is part of the work.

As it is for you, much more urgently so, for you.

24 05 2011
geekhiker

I think I have a harder and harder time reading about that kind of thing as I get older simply because I become more acutely aware of how long through history such atrocities have occurred. I mean, sure, when you’re young you read and learn that “history repeats itself”, but it’s just a mantra until you start going through life and see it happening, over and over again. The players change, the game remains the same, and when I read and wince I’m reacting not only to the event, but to the knowledge that it’s happened before. And yet, I challenge myself, because I think the knowledge is important.

Well, mostly challenge. I’m reading Dick Van Dyke’s memoir now, for a lighter change of pace…

26 05 2011
absurdbeats

I do wonder if age + experience is the key formula: It’s hard to sustain outrage in the face of millenia of horrific behavior.

Still, the Nazis were and are in a class of their own.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.




%d bloggers like this: