November 21, 2008

With God on Our Side

Masterpiece Theatre recently aired a conspicuously brilliant episode entitled "God on Trial."  It was set, as all too often, in Auschwitz, or more specifically and accurately in Birkenau, which is where the real methodical Nazi killing took place. The drama is intercut with scenes of visitors to the modern day museums which now stand where Auschwitz-Birkenau were located.  One of the visitors is an old man. 

Birkenau was the combination work camp and murder factory run by Germans in the south of Poland.  I have visited Auschwitz and Birkenau.  The evil of the places seeps into your bones. For a long time after visiting I was in a kind of daze, and afflicted by a malaise akin to a physical sickness.  I suppose that anyone who can do so should visit Auschwitz once, but it comes with this caveat: you will never look upon your fellow human beings in quite the same way again.  The simple truth is that Homo sapiens, as a species, is capable of evil on a scale that dwarfs any other force in the history of our planet Earth.  It is not even reasonable or fair to claim that humans can be "bestial," because other beasts do not carry on like humans when on a murderous rampage.  The true horror of the Third Reich was the application of cold human intelligence, that most evolved of all human traits, to the systematic extermination of other human beings.

In destroying its German Jewry, Germany destroyed itself, of course.  The Nazis were indiscriminate in their choice of annihilation: doctors, lawyers, judges, physicists, artists, composers, writers, rabbis, the educated elite of German society.  All dehumanized and spared or killed on the basis of superficial physical attributes: could they do menial work for a short duration before starving or freezing to death?  The Jewish prisoners in the long house in "God on Trial" have just been through the initial evaluation process.  Stripped naked and shorn of their hair, they have trotted down the length of a room where a "doctor" waited at a small table.  This judge of their fitness, distracted and indifferent, indicated whether the prisoner was to go left or right.  Those to the left were condemned.  All of the men return to the long house and wait, their assignments now clear.  New arrivals wearing regular clothes are pushed into the long house to wait with them, then they too are put through the process of "selection."  

To pass the time while they wait for the "selected" to be led away to their deaths, they decide to put God on trial.  Among them are lawyers, theologians, physicists, and a judge -- brilliant men who have been deprived of their wives, children, possessions and dignity.  Yet they can still argue and reason, their minds are still their own.  And so they posit the question: did God break His covenant with his Chosen People?  Is God guilty of breach of contract with the Jews?

In their delirious pain and fear, the arguments advanced have a stark and terrifying immediacy.  There is no time for trivial ruminations or cavils.  Some, of course, are bitter about God's betrayal: how could He permit His own people to be rounded up and shipped like cattle to death camps?  How could He countenance the Holocaust, the murder of innocent children, the destruction of a culture?  Others do their best to remain philosophical and "objective:"  God moves in mysterious ways, this is a trying of Jewish faith in God, much as God tested Abraham with Isaac. Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Temple and in so doing acted as an "agent" of God; wasn't Hitler in the same role? In the end one can be assured that Hitler and the Nazis will be destroyed by God's wrath, and those among them awaiting death must see themselves as martyrs in this dramatic confrontation of Good and Evil.  A physicist notes the existence of the billions of stars in the Milky Way, the billions of suns with planetary systems, and argues for the extreme unlikelihood that God actually designed all of the Universe with just the fate of one people on one small planet in mind, that it is all a case of human presumption to imagine that God is real or created any of this.  These condemned Jews are alone, and it is the folly of believing in any God at all which has contributed to their helplessness.

It is left to Akiba, one rabbi with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Torah and the singular odyssey of the Israelites to place all in perspective and to provide the answer which none of the others either could refute, or under the exigent circumstances of the imminent arrival of the Nazi killers, had time to refute.  Akiba, calling on the great knowledge of other rabbis and scholars in the long house, takes the prisoners through the many instances of God's retributive justice: the Great Flood and the annihilation of almost all humankind. The Ten Plagues and then the killing of the first born of the Egyptians. Not Pharoah, but the innocent children of his kingdom.  Of the mass killing by King Saul and his legions, and how Saul had "killed his thousands," but King David was greater because he had killed "tens of thousands."  Of the brutal and horrific massacres of the Ammonites, close relatives of the Israelites.  The thousands of enemies of the Israelites who were forced to lie on the field of battle where one was spared and two chosen for death.  Of David's lust for Bathsheeba, and his manipulation of her husband into death in a distant battle.  Of the parting of the Red Sea, how God had not only made passage safe for the Israelites, but timed the inundation of the soldiers who pursued them for maximum destructive effect.  

At the end of this explication, Akiba prepares the ground for his conclusion with a simple observation: the Nazis who came to take him away wore belt buckles inscribed with the legend "Gott mit Uns."  God with Us.  And who could really say He was not?  So at the end of his closing argument, Akiba, this rabbi of great piety and deep erudition, electrifies his rapt audience with another simple observation: It was not that God was good; He had simply been "on our side." And now He was on someone else's side, and the Jews in that long house selected for gassing knew what it was like to be an Egyptian first-born, or an Ammonite, or a Philistine, or a soldier drowned by the closing waters of the Red Sea.

The drama ends in present time, with visitors leaving Birkenau and reboarding buses to take them away.  The old man tells a young woman that the prisoners, in fact, found that God was guilty.  He had breached his covenant with the Israelites and the Jewish people.  In their extremes of terror and desolation, who knows why men would resort to a moot court to question their own faith?  Out of bitterness and despair?  Of course that goes a long way toward explaining everything.  Yet Akiba, to my way of thinking, unlocked the door to a simple truth.  A wrathful, jealous, destructive and partisan God may be a fickle ally in one's hour of greatest need.  Maybe what we have called "God" in the blood-soaked histories of Judeo-Christian holy books is a rationalization for our very own worst instincts, for our own intolerance and murderous proclivities and insatiable greed.  Perhaps God did not create Man; maybe Man created God as a personification of his own evil shadow.

November 18, 2008

They were only following orders

It seems to be the consensus of opinion that the Obama Administration will not tarry over the Bushian crimes of the past, nor prosecute violations of the War Crimes Act for torture or other outrages against humanity.  This is no great surprise.  Beltway wisdom, as Glenn Greenwald over there on the right hand column points out on a daily basis, always leans in favor of collegiality and sweeping things under the rug.  Even Patrick Leahy (D, Vt.), one of the more vociferous and effective critics of the Bush Administration's detention and interrogation tactics, does not favor any kind of Justice Department action against U.S. officials.  Rationales are easy to find for this sort of soft-peddling of criminal acts.  For example, the following reasoning:

"Pre-emptive pardons would be highly controversial, but former White House counsel Arthur B. Culvahouse Jr. said it would protect those who were following orders or otherwise trying to protect the nation.

"I know of no one who acted in reckless disregard of U.S. law or international law," said Culvahouse, who served under President Ronald Reagan. "It's just not good for the intelligence community and the defense community to have people in the field, under exigent circumstances, being told these are the rules, to be exposed months and years after the fact to criminal prosecution."

We haven't heard that one in a few decades: they were only following orders.  As indeed they were, I'm sure, but that's sort of the point of an investigation of the "higher-ups:" to determine what the legal basis for ordering violations of the the Geneva Conventions and the War Crimes Act was in the first place.  The "preemptive pardons" which Mr. Culvahouse mentions would only be icing on the cake, given the retroactive immunities granted by Congress, discussed below.  Anyway, I personally agree that the operatives "in the field" should not be the focus of any inquiry, and that we do make a hard job impossible by threatening them with prosecution for following Presidential directives.  The point is that it is not difficult here to find the higher source of this "banality of evil."  It's all in writing and admitted to by the President's inner circle.

Nikita Kruschev was faced with a similar quandary shortly after assuming power in the Soviet Union in the 1950s.  At the 20th Party Congress in 1956 he asked for special permission from the Presidium to deliver a detailed critique and denunciation of the atrocities of the Stalin Regime and the "Cult of Personality."  He was refused permission inititally by Molotov, Kaganovich and other high Communist officials.  Part of their angst was personal; many of them (and including Kruschev) had been involved in the purges, murders, and Gulag-related outrages of the Stalin Regime.  Using a parliamentary trick, however, Kruschev managed, about ten days into the Congress, to deliver a lengthy, detailed and extemporaneous denunciation of the Cult of Personality, and the transcript of that secret proceeding was spirited out of the inner sanctum of the Central Committee to the general Soviet populace.  It had an electrifying effect and set up many of the reforms which were gradually introduced over the course of the next eight years or so.

We're clearly not going to have such a moment in the United States.  Some features of the Soviet situation seem analogous to our own.  Congress embedded retroactive exonerations for war crime violations in the Detainee Treatment Act and the Military Commissions Act; essentially, reliance on the "advice of counsel" to assure one that following orders was okay cleans the slate of detainee abuse.  Thus, under U.S. law waterboarding of suspected terrorists, whether or not they were capable of producing actionable intelligence on an emergency basis (the "24" scenario), is forgiven retroactively, and a key element in such exoneration is the reasonable belief that the "advice of counsel" gave one the green light.  A majority of Democrats and Republicans, therefore, have joined forces to make certain that no effective prosecutions under the War Crimes Act ever take place, and part of the reason for their resistance is the extent to which they are all co-opted now by complicity in the "tactics."  We do not have a Kruschev on the horizon to bull his way through the stonewalling, so the matter will be put to rest.

The United States did undergo the ravages of a "Cult of Personality" over the last eight years, although I'm not entirely certain whose personality it was.  It seems almost comical to ascribe it to the feckless person of George W. Bush.  The Cult centered around the arrogant promotion of the Unitary Executive, with its signing statements abrogating legislative enactments and secret procedures for dealing with America's enemies.  America did establish its own Gulag, and did kill people under torture.  These are well-established facts.  Unlike Stalin, the American Cult of Personality did not mainly turn its ferocity against its own people, and that is why we are apt to be so forgiving and to "move on."  The victims to us are mostly faceless and anonymous, and it's not in our nature to worry too much about them.  Whether we can really "move on" without the archetypal "accountability moment" may prove to be a more serious question, however. I don't think human psychology permits such an open-ended progression.  At some point, we need to find out what we did, why we did it and what we're going to do about it.