The best and the worst of us

Night. Persuasion. Foul language. Psychological contrast. Humiliation. Confusion. Intimidation. Lies. Exploiting your feelings for your loved ones. Sound effects. Tickling. Starvation. Thirst. No sleep. No sitting. Beatings. Bridling.

In the Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn lists thirty one methods of interrogation used in the Russian prison and labor camps. This isn’t an exhaustive list. As he observes, “the types of torture were not regulated and every kind of ingenuity was permitted, no matter what.”

Perhaps the most harrowing example:

“The most awful thing they can do … undress you from the waist down, place you on your back on the floor, pull your legs apart, seat assistants on them who also hold down your arms; and then the interrogator (and women interrogators have not shrunk from this) stands between your legs and with the toe of his boot (or of her shoe) gradually, steadily, and with ever greater pressure crushes against the floor those organs which once made you a man.”

And for what purpose?

“He looks into your eyes and repeats and repeats his questions or the betrayal he is urging on you. If he does not press down too quickly or just a shade too powerfully, you still have fifteen seconds left in which to scream that you will confess to everything, that you are ready to see arrested all twenty of those people he’s been demanding of you, or that you will slander in the newspapers everything you hold holy…”

I was telling Molly about States of Denial. It discusses pogroms, political massacres, genocides, atrocities and what we do when we know about and witness them.

She asked why I was interested in such depressing things.

Because it’s important.

In our society, we are shielded from what is uncomfortable and disturbing. We are taught about the upside of human nature; our capacity for generosity, for creativity, for learning, for compassion, for love and friendship. We are seldom exposed to the cruelty, the baseness, the violence, the worst of our nature.

In the same way that we must know sadness and suffering to appreciate happiness, we must learn about the potential savagery of our nature to appreciate it’s possible greatness.

This passage is from Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning:

“Man is ultimately self-determining. What he becomes – within the limits of endowment and environment – he has made out of himself. In the concentration camps, for example, in this living laboratory and on this testing ground, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualised depends on decisions but not on conditions.
Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”

We can create and we can destroy. We can love and we can hate.

We can choose.