Humanity: the quality or condition of being human – Dictionary.com
with [psychiatrist and best-selling author Scott M.] Peck’s perception of
evil... is his proclivity to project evil exclusively onto some small segment of
the population... We would do well to remember that evil remains an
ever-present, archetypal potentiality in each of us – Richard A.Diamond,
author of ‘Anger, Madness and the Daemonic.’
We open our daily newspaper or turn
on the television and are confronted by yet another stomach-turning headline.
Rape, murder and other terrible deeds loom disproportionately large – even while
we realize that it is the media’s nature to seek out sensation and make as much
of it as possible.
Just days ago, two young women were raped in the
Jezreel Valley, northeast of Haifa. Last week, Tel Aviv police arrested a man on
suspicion of having raped a 17-year-old girl at knife-point in the heart of the
city and forced her boyfriend to watch during an ordeal that went on for an
unimaginable three hours.
Earlier this month, we learned about the
individual – his first name, ironically, means “mercy” – sentenced to 18 years
in jail for operating one of the largest slavery “businesses” in Israel’s
history, luring women from Eastern Europe into the country on the pretext of
work as waitresses and bar staff, then forcing them into prostitution.
were also reminded of a senseless murder that happened three years ago, when
Arik Karp was beaten and kicked to death by a bunch of drunken thugs as he
enjoyed the sea air with his wife and daughter on the Tel Baruch boardwalk. On
May 14, the Tel Aviv District Court unanimously rejected an appeal by two young
people – one of them a former IDF soldier – who had been present during the
killing and convicted of standing by and failing to prevent it. In fact, they
left the scene with their intoxicated buddies and continued on to a night of
Perpetrators of other heinous crimes come to mind: Elior Chen,
Itai Ben-Dror, Ronnie Ron, Marie Pizem.
The mere mention of them sends
chills down the spine.
AFTER READING or hearing about outrages such as
the ones committed by these individuals, our reaction as generally upright and
well-intentioned citizens is pretty uniform; understandable, too. But it raises
disturbing questions we would prefer to avoid.
As we voice our shock or
shake our heads in disbelief at this or that diabolical act, we instinctively
and almost simultaneously engage in an emotional shrinking back – arms
figuratively outstretched and palms upraised – to ward off both crime and
perpetrator, putting as much “daylight” as possible between ourselves and the
“monsters who could do such a thing.”
In so doing, we are in effect
telling ourselves: “They might look like us, like ordinary people, but what we
are dealing with here is a different sort of creature entirely – a different
But here’s the rub, and it’s a disconcerting one: These
people aren’t monsters, though their deeds may be monstrous. They aren’t aliens
landed from another planet, however much we might wish they were. They are our
fellow human beings – and, as such, our kin.
That being the case, can we
dissociate ourselves utterly from them?
THIS PAINFUL subconscious reasoning is,
perhaps, what partially propelled the late Michael Jackson to confront the
reality of Nazism and the destruction it had wrought.
Shmuley Boteach, in
a 2005 Jerusalem Post op-ed, recalled that he once asked Jackson whether he
really believed that if he could have an hour alone with Hitler, “you could
somehow touch something inside of him?” “Absolutely,” the singer responded. “I
know I could.”
However fatuous his answer may sound, and however mistaken
he might have been about the “something inside of” one of the greatest mass
murderers in history and his ability to “touch” that something, one surmises
that Jackson was grappling with the essential truth that humanity – or perhaps
humanness – is a basic attribute shared by all God’s creatures, whoever and
wherever they are, and whatever they may do.
I myself grappled with this
difficult issue of a common humanity in a piece I wrote many years ago about
being a member of the “second generation” which survived the
In it, I, “the child,” described being present at a family
gathering of survivors whose behavior was hard for me to fathom:
“‘I saw them
playing football,’ one survivor says. ‘The ball seemed an odd, ragged shape. I
went closer and looked. It was a baby.’
“The words mean nothing. I feel nothing.
But unease hangs heavy in the air, and my family sit shamed, like guilty ones
condemned. Suddenly I am full of anger. ‘Isn’t it enough?’ I want to
shout, ‘Isn’t it enough what our enemies did? Must we be their conscience, too?’"
“Then I think it is the shame of having been there and seen the last vestiges of
feeling stripped away, of witnessing the final insult. Humanity is a common
possession, after all. And I, the infant, also felt the shame, and
whatever is in me that is akin to all mankind held its face in its hands and
A FRIEND to whom I talked recently recounted an incident that
happened in her home town in Europe some 20 years ago.
A man was charged
with murder. When he appeared in court, people were surprised to see the priest
of his parish sitting beside him. They were even more astonished when the priest
spoke up and told the judge: “There is no difference between this man and
The effect of the cleric’s statement on those present, my friend
said, was electric. “It helped burst a bubble of self-righteousness that had
prevailed in the community.”
How did the judge ultimately rule? My friend
didn’t say; but that isn’t the point of the story.
The point is that it
places the criminal – even the worst kind of criminal – not outside the frame of
the human picture, where we might long to put him, but inside it, essentially
occupying the same space as ourselves. And it pierces the too-easy conviction of
moral superiority, the automatic assumption that “I could never in my life do
anything like that.”
THE VALUE of stressing the common humanity criminals
share with us lies neither in bringing us down to the level of their terrible
acts, nor in raising the perpetrators up via some attempt to “understand” and
thereby excuse those acts.
Western society’s disdain for the
“Judeo-Christian” view of absolute morality notwithstanding, I see neither the
individual nor society benefiting from swimming around in a murky pool of moral
relativism, where good can depend on what day of the week it is, and evil on
what a murderer’s mother may have fed him as a child.
Where there is no
recognition of absolute evil, there is also none of good. And little good can
surely come of that.
It seems to me that, difficult as it is, we ought
not to flinch from hearing about the evil that human beings – creatures like
ourselves – can wreak, but ponder long and deeply what it means to be human, to
what heights a human being can rise, and to what depths we can sink.