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inhumanity is part of human nature

June 7, 2009

by Zygmunt Bauman

Suffering is always painful but rarely ennobling. It is obvious that causing suffering morally taints the perpetrator. But the victims do not get away safe and untainted either by the destruction of moral impulses and inhibitions… Do they wait for their chance to pay back the executioners in their own coin? Yes, but first they learn the secrets of life in which this coin is currency.  Right after the war, American psychiatrists who treated people who had survived the horrors of the Holocaust described the ailment tormenting their patients as guilt syndrome: “Why am I alive when so many others died in front of my eyes?!” However, they changed their view very quickly. “Guilt syndrome” vanished from psychiatric vocabulary to be replaced by “survivor syndrome”. “They are out to get me, to finish me off, and they are sure to succeed if I don’t get there first, if I don’t strike the first blow…”

“Survivor syndrome” is hereditary: successive generations pass on the poisoned fruit of a martyrology that is disappearing into the past.  Descendants of victims cultivate only the communal categorical myth and hereditary martyrdom without having experienced the events that generated these messages; this circumstance makes “survivor” scholarship, spun from the experience of martyrdom, impervious to practical tests. The vision of a world conspiracy, freed from factual tests, pervades and dominates the “survivor” milieu. It enables individual “survivors”, speaking with Alain Finkielkraut, to participate in the glorification of their martyred ancestors and, on this basis, to demand compensation and licence to act ruthlessly – without paying the price their ancestors had to pay for their descendants’ memory.

Both victims and silent witnesses of atrocities, who were forced, in Jan Błoński’s words, to “participate in the bloody spectacle” now know only too well that there are ways  — inhuman perhaps? maybe so, but certainly effective — of getting rid of human problems, be they real or imagined. And that inhumanity is part of human nature. And that means that someone, somewhere, sometime, might resort to those ways again. And therefore one might also have to resort to them if the fear becomes unbearable…. The price of survival is the killing of those who can and want to kill you and therefore have to kill you…

“Survival syndrome” suggests that the point of life is survival – with the proviso that, whoever is the first to strike a blow will survive the one or the ones who did not manage to do so.  If the blow is struck in good time, hitting the target and knocking it out, there is no need to fear revenge or punishment. The post-Holocaust world has promoted “preventative” wars.  As the experience of Iraq demonstrates, the world is willing to unleash genocidal passions in the name of preventing presumed genocide.  And as the experience of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo shows, our world has no scruples when it comes to those who (who knows?) would not have hesitated to strike a blow if treated with scruples. Both sides have found the lessons of the Holocaust useful. (read)

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