I am still engaged in my endless pursuit of understanding how it is we human beings manage to do as much or more harm in our lives as good. My sensitivity to this question comes directly from and is proportional to my own ability to see and to own and to love that part of me, that part that has done and continues to do harm, for without that unconditional love of myself, I will forever be captive to my own projections and never truly love another.
With my internal radar so attuned, what to another’s eyes might seem serendipitous, is actually as inevitable as the leap of iron filings to a magnet.
At the turn of the millennium when my exploration was in it’s infancy I had discovered the writings of British journalist, Gitta Sereny. I don’t recall, now, how I made that discovery but two of her books sit, at this moment and always, side by side on my bookshelf, a crucial gateway into my journey: Cries Unheard—Why children kill: the story of Mary Bell and Into That Darkness—An examination of conscience, a record of her extensive prison interviews with Franz Stangl, Commandant of Treblinka. Sereny was a master at putting people at ease and thereby allowing us through her words to enter the inner workings of their hearts.
Nearly a decade on now, I find myself reading Eichmann in Jerusalem—A Report on the Banality of Evil. Skipping the introduction by Amos Elon, knowing somehow that I wanted no distance between myself and the words of Hannah Arendt, the eminently human and influential German Jewess immigrant to the United States in the early 1940’s— a thinker, an astute observer and writer and editor, I moved slowly into her initial essay, The House of Justice—for the book is a compilation of a series of essays first published in The New Yorker magazine in the spring of 1963, the very year I graduated college and began a decades long circuitous, sometimes sporadic, always unconscious spiral downward into the darker regions of myself—and in my slow reading of her words found I was overcome by that very lack of distance I sought and was in love with this kindred spirit. I have no illusions about Hannah. I know we are equally human and that, no doubt, sustains my love of her words.
Part of the blowback from my downward spiral has been the loss of contact with my two oldest daughters—something I referenced in my recent poem, My Helen, my Iphigenia
I can’t say, Helen, all the reasons
Hannah’s haunting story came to mind
I know a few and surely my loss of you
and of your sister remains a white hot iron
not cooled by time—forcing a focus at my core,
in my heart on the reasons why—
And “Hannah’s haunting story” I reference here is not her chronicling of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem but a very personal childhood memory I encountered in that very same New Yorker magazine two weeks ago or more in an essay by the editor, writer and poet, Adam Kirsch, entitled, Beware of Pity—Hannah Arendt and the power of the impersonal, a look at some of the current scholarship and thinking about Arendt more than a quarter century after her death in 1975. I relate the story in my poem:
When Hannah was a little girl
her mother had told
or read to her the story
of a little boy named Jacob
who was a good little boy,
who helped his mother
sell her vegetables at market
but who had the misfortune to fall
under the spell of a wicked witch
who changed his appearance
to that of a dwarf with a great long nose
so that his parents could no longer recognize him.
Hannah’s mother thought to tease her daughter,
calling her dwarf nose
and pretending to not recognize
her own flesh and blood.
As an adult, many years on,
Hannah recalled vividly
and viscerally the terror
she had experienced at that moment
as she cried out in anguish, in desperate panic to her mother,
“No! I am Hanna! I am Hannah, your daughter!”
Perhaps it was here that I fell in love with Hannah for her willingness to share this memory of a moment with her mother, a memory triggered by a chance encounter at a railway station in Germany with her former lover and mentor Martin Heidegger who failed to recognize her—that shock, sending her immediately back into that place of terror and despair she had experienced when her mother so cruelly tortured her—though I have no doubt at all, when I think of myself with my own children, that her mother had no conscious intent nor desire to be cruel to her precious little daughter. I have no doubt she loved her daughter as Franz Stangl loved his two daughters, one of whom could never accept her father’s guilt.
So when I came to The House of Justice, I carried this little girl Hannah with me and her mother and her grownup terror and I had already spoken, My Helen, my Iphigenia—that mythic metaphor of a father’s inability to see and to hold his daughter. You might say, then, my heart was open—no surprise I found her words so moving.
And as I trawl my own and other’s souls each day in my comings and in my goings, my face to face encounters with friends or those I scarcely even know, and in my explorations of bookshelves and of that enormous universe of cyberspace, I continue, day in and day out, to find more stories that tell me what it is to be a human being—as I did this morning in the New York Times—a short essay on the OpEd page translated from the French and entitled, My Savior, Their Killer, written by Françios Bizot which, in turn, sent me to Google and a search for The Gate, his memoir of the time spent as a prisoner of the Khmer Rouge, a prisoner of Comrade Duch, Kaing Guek Eav, who is now on trial, all these years later when the Killing Fields of Cambodia hardly ever enter our consciousness, for genocide and crimes against humanity. And Françios’ story, like Hannah’s, like Franz’s, like Mary’s, like Comrade Duch’s, like yours and like mine is oh so human and in that way touches us, if we are able to allow that touch.
Bizot argues—but let me allow him to speak for himself
Duch does not raise any objection to his trial. In his heart lie the same fears that haunted each of his victims — ancient fears that have never ceased to haunt mankind. Thus he has admitted his guilt, bowed over and humbled by the horror of what he has done.
Last February, Duch was led, with his consent, to the scenes of his crimes. The visit was a shock for all who witnessed it. This major judicial step took place in an atmosphere of intense, palpable emotion.
“I ask for your forgiveness — I know that you cannot forgive me, but I ask you to leave me the hope that you might,” he said before collapsing in tears on the shoulder of one of his guards.
I was not there — it was a closed hearing — but those who were reported that the cry of the former executioner betrayed such suffering that one of the few survivors of Tuol Sleng screamed out, “Here are the words that I’ve longed to hear for 30 years!”
It could be that forgiveness is possible after a simple, natural process, when the victim feels that he has been repaid. And the executioner has to pay dearly, for it is the proof of his suffering that eases ours.
Let us not fool ourselves. Beyond the crimes that Duch committed against humanity, those of the Khmer Rouge will also be judged. And beyond the crimes of the Khmer Rouge, the capacity of the tribunals to mete out justice will be tested, as well as our ability to judge man himself, and history. We shall all be at the trial — not just as judges, but also as victims, and the accused.
The genocide of the Khmer Rouge will be judged as a “crime against humanity,” a crime against ourselves. As such, Duch’s guilt exceeds his immediate victims; it becomes the guilt of humanity, in the name of all victims. Duch killed mankind. The trial of the Khmer Rouge should be an opportunity for each of us to gaze at the torturer with some distance — from beyond the intolerable cry of the suffering, which may veil the truth of the abomination. The only way to look at the torturer is to humanize him.
So, you see the stories that come to me are simply my own—no serendipity, no serendipity at all.