Tuesday, October 15, 2013

In the Presence of Evil

Today is the 70th anniversary of the wartime deportation of Jews in German-occupied Rome. Following the public announcement of the armistice between the Allies and Italy on September 8, the King and his Government had fled south from Rome and the capital was immediately occupied by German troops. Then on the morning of October 16, 1,015 (out of a Roman Jewish population 6,730) were rounded up by the Germans, of whom only 16 would survive the war. (Within two months, another 7,345 Jews would be found and deported from occupied Northern Italy.) Meanwhile, 477 Jews would be given sanctuary in the Vatican, and 4,000 would find sanctuary in other church buildings.
Ironically, this anniversary coincides with the October 11 death in Rome of a 100-year old, former German SS officer, sentenced in 1996 to life imprisonment under house arrest by an Italian court for having organized the infamous Fosse Ardeatine massacre, on March 24, 1944, in which 335 Italian civilians were executed in the Ardeatine caves as a reprisal for an attack on German troops by resistance elements.

The deportation and death of several thousand Roman Jews was one, comparatively small episode in the genocidal operation now known as the Holocaust. The Fosse Ardeatine massacre was likewise one singular incident among many wartime atrocities against civilians. But both are intensely remembered in Rome and remain real reminders to the world of the 20th century's murderous history.

The post-war world witnessed additional millions of such monumental crimes - among them, the 1950s Chinese famine caused by Mao's revolutionary policies, Serbian atrocities in Bosnia in the 1990s, and the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Particularly memorable for my generation (because of its link with the U.S. defeat in Vietnam and our departure from Southeast Asia) was what happened in Cambodia, under the brutal Cambodian communist Khmer Rouge government led by Pol Pot in the 1970s, which was responsible for the deaths of some 1.7 million Cambodians out of a population of less than 10 million. A top prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival was awarded to a documentary by Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh, who was 13 when the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975 and whose entire family died during the ensuing genocide, but who somehow survived to tell the tale. (For an online assessment of this film, see Richard Bernstein's recent review,  "Cambodia's Unseen Horrors, in The New York Review of Books,"

Surely, it was one of the more curious conceits of modern secular rationalism that the human race, under its humanistic tutelage, was moving linearly in a direction toward progress. That bubble was burst 99 years ago by the monumental absurdity of the First World War. The rest of the century that has elapsed since then has served to provide repeated confirmation of what a fallacy that secular faith in progress really was. The Cambodian case seems especially apt as it was a concentrated, ideologically-motivated effort by a small revolutionary elite movement to remake an entire society in short order by the most determined means. This was not some ancient ethnic rivalry suddenly escalating in a fit of mass hysteria, but a deliberate governmental program to enact its ideologically driven convictions concerning a better world.

In assessing what went so radically wrong in the last century of human history, it is clear that technological "progress" has been one contributing factor. It is now possible - and practical - to perpetuate evil on a massive scale previously unimaginable. But, while that is certainly true, it is also true that the Cambodian episode was relatively low-tech. Certainly technological advances have made it easier for massive criminality to occur, but it does not completely explain it. There seems to be something more basically wrong - and terribly so - that modern secular rationalism's celebratory prognostication of progress failed to reckon with.

Of course, as the Lord himself has told us, the desires of man's heart are evil from the start (Genesis 8:21). In the Flood story, this is given as God's reason for foregoing another apocalypse. But why have we been reprieved?  Surely not so we can just keep on  "progressing" the way we have so far? 

The forthcoming World War I centennial will undoubtedly produce many learned explanations of what went wrong a century ago and how we remain scarred by it. Knowledge is good. So, by all means, let the explanations and analyses bloom in abundance. But in the presence of so much deliberate evil, something more, something less detached, is surely required of us.


No comments:

Post a Comment