The Sane Ones

I've written about Adolf Eichmann and the banality of evil before on this blog. I recently came across a powerful essay by Thomas Merton entitled "A Devout Meditation in Memory of Adolf Eichmann" in his book Raids on the Unspeakable. Some selections from the essay:

One of the most disturbing facts that came out in the Eichmann trial was that a psychiatrist examined him and pronounced him perfectly sane. I do not doubt it at all, and that is precisely why I find it disturbing.

If all the Nazis had been psychotics, as some of their leaders probably were, their appalling cruelty would have been in some sense easier to understand. It is much worse to consider this calm, "well-balanced," unperturbed official conscientiously going about his desk work, his administrative job which happened to be the supervision of mass murder. He was thoughtful, orderly, unimaginative. He had a profound respect for system, for law and order. He was obedient, loyal, a faithful officer of a great state. He served his government very well...It all comes under the heading of duty, self-sacrifice, and obedience. Eichmann was devoted to duty, and proud of his job.

The sanity of Eichmann is disturbing. We equate sanity with a sense of justice, with humaneness, with prudence, with the capacity to love and understand other people. We rely on the sane people of the world to preserve it from barbarism, madness, destruction. And now it begins to dawn on us that it is precisely the sane ones who are the most dangerous.

It is the sane ones, the well-adapted ones, who can without qualms and without nausea aim the missiles and press the buttons and will initiate the great festival of destruction that they, the sane ones, have prepared. What makes us so sure, after all, that the danger comes from a psychotic getting into a position to fire the first shot in a nuclear war? Psychotics will be suspect. The sane ones will keep them far from the button. No one suspects the sane, and the sane ones will have perfectly good reasons, logical, well-adjusted reasons, for firing the shot. They will be obeying sane orders that have come sanely down the chain of command. And because of their sanity they will have no qualms at all...

We can no longer assume that because a man is "sane" he is therefore in his "right mind." The whole concept of sanity in a society where spiritual values have lost their meaning is itself meaningless...

And so I ask myself: what is the meaning of a concept of sanity that excludes love, considers it irrelevant, and destroys our capacity to love other human beings, to respond to their needs and their sufferings, to recognize them also as persons, to apprehend their pain as one's own? Evidently this is not necessary for "sanity" at all...

...The worst error is to imagine that a Christian must try to be "sane" like everybody else, that we belong in our kind of society.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

26 thoughts on “The Sane Ones”

  1. Richard, I am curious to hear more of what you see here. I have not thought about this topic before, but after my first read I hear this...Sanity is about consistently engaging our surrounding reality. However, if the surrounding reality is askew, then all bets are off. 

    Having lived with someone for 15 years with Dissociative Identity Disorder, I can say that I have experienced a small view of what can happen when an alternative reality is projected. Someone in the system needs a more "transcendent" view of the situation in order to find the true and loving response. (Note: I know DID is not insanity, but the same distortion of reality occurs.)

  2. Dr. Beck, you are reading my mind again.  (Only you're putting my thoughts into words much more clearly than I could have!)

    Over coffee yesterday afternoon with a mom-friend, we were discussing the meanness our kids have witnessed or have had directed at them.  We (both INFP / INFJ types) have raised our children to be kind and compassionate human beings, but worry (I do at least) from time to time that my kids will not have the "edge" of hardness that they need to survive in this world.

    If we believe that the Holocaust was unique in that the people and age were so different from us and our time, then we probably have not confronted our own capacity for hatred and violence (or at the very least, indifference to the suffering of others).  We're the most technologically- and informationally-connected society ever, and yet we can be so *dis*connected from others.  *De*sensitized to the *de*humanizing elements that we ourselves have created; demonizing the other.  Is it an overload of existential awareness that causes us to shut down our senses?

    So, a question:  Is the issue more to the point of whether a person calmly and calculatingly carries out cruel acts against other human beings?  Are we talking about a psychopath?  Sociopath?  Which raises the question in my mind as to whether such individuals are born unable to empathize with the suffering of others, or whether they are created by environmental influences?  How, as a society, are we inadvertently (or maybe not) optimizing the conditions for a population with a bent toward cold-blooded cruelty (or best case scenario, numb indifference)?  Saul of Tarsus was such a cold-blooded killer.  He was changed...

  3. In noting Merton's historical situation some of what he is talking about becomes more clear. He was looking at the Vietnam War and the growing threat of a Nuclear Holocaust. It did seem like the world had gone mad and was about to blow itself up. Thus, dissenting wasn't crazy but the sane thing to do in the face of the madness.

    On the surface our time seems less crazy, but there is plenty of madness around. So, yes, I'm seeing what you say here: Sanity is being engaged with reality, but when the prevailing moral code becomes askew then dissenting becomes the truly sane thing to do. I like how Heschel puts it: A prophet is one who says no to society. Or as I say to my students, it's not the job of the Christian to make the world run more smoothly. We should be objecting and gumming up the works at certain points.

  4. Here in Iowa, we had the sorrow last Sunday of a 14-year-old's suicide (Kenneth Weishuhn at Primghar) after intense bullying that developed when he publicly self-identified as gay a few weeks earlier. Nation-wide publicity and a full-page, front-page anti-bullying editorial this Sunday in The Sioux City Journal followed. Stumbling onto one of our state's most popular conservative religiously oriented  blogs this morning, I learned that  all this attention is homosexual propoganda and that suicide is not the "natural" outcome of bullying. How very sane, I thought --- in many Christian circles.

  5. Psychologists talk about something called the fundamental attribution error ( The basic idea is that when we see an action we tend to explain it by making an appeal to intrinsic, internal, dispositional/personality traits. Sally does X because she's nice. Billy does X because he's lazy. The Nazi's did X because they were sociopaths.

    The error in making these attributions is that we tend to ignore or downplay the power of situational, contextual, and environmental factors and forces. This mistake is worrisome as it causes us to overestimate the strength of our own virtue, leading us to wander into situations unwittingly. The deal is, most people morally falter when enough pressure is brought to bear. The key is to avoid that pressure.

    This isn't to say that many of the Nazi's weren't sociopaths. But you can't fully understand the Holocaust until you understand how the cultural climate slowly changed and poisoned the minds of the general populace. How normal people, just like you and I, did some pretty bad things or, at the very least, opted for oblivion.

    We are not immune. It's not surprising that Americans, for perfectly sane reasons, grew more approving of torture after 9/11.

  6. This is why, to me, the rallying cry of "Community" puts me off. It seems to presume the "right thing to do" is Delegate Your Thinking to the Group, and thou shalt not maketh waves.

  7. Frank, this and the steady stream of reported bullying-suicide incidents sadden and frighten me.  The way I see it, lip service is paid, publicly, to an intolerance of bullying in society, but more often than not, those in authority seem either willfully ignorant of the bullying that takes place on their watch, or are knowingly turning their backs, and in so doing, silently signaling their approval of it.  How in the hell do Christians "gum up the works" of that dysfunctional reality?  Especially when I hear so many Christians touting the "benefits" of being bullied, the likelihood of Christians as a group positively influencing the situation seems slim to me.  Holy cow, as you pointed out, the Christians *are* the bullies in so many cases.  There are zero benefits to being bullied.  It does not make us stronger.  It wounds and traumatizes, if not destroys altogether as in the sad cases of suicide.

  8. Thanks, Dr. Beck.  Wise thoughts.  Let me meditate a while on these things...  ~Peace~

  9. Amen, Susan. When my own son was bullied (not for being gay, but for being more bookish and academic than the little !@#$s that ganged up on him at church) the Sunday school teacher had the audacity to blame our son for the incident. "Well, he's a little immature, so he brings it on himself." Seriously, she defended the bullies. And the children's minister refused to contact the parents of the boys involved (can't offend those wealthier parents, you know). The only "benefit" I saw was that we got our kids and ourselves out of that "community" system. We proved to our son that he meant more to us than our being "accepted."

  10. There are a lot of toxic things about community. A lot of toxic things. But I also find a lot of toxic things about my own self-concept, my own ego and sin. And the only antidote I've found in this regard in dealing with the toxicity of myself is community.

    Still, there is a need to make waves. And I've made a wave or two in my life... :-)

  11. Yikes! This seems to me to be a no-brainer issue in which Christians should be way ahead of the world. Every Christian I know (or could even comprehend as a Christian) has been opposing bullying all along, whatever the reason for the bullying, back when the media ignored it.

    I am, myself, moderately cynical about the fact that the media decides to expose the suffering homosexuals go through only when the media decides that gayness is appealing--or, to put it differently, to expose the problems of bullying even when it has decided that the victims of the bullying are appealing. Christians are called to do the much harder work of standing up for the weak and the oppressed when those people are NOT appealing. And the real Christians I know have been standing up for bullied people, including bullied gays, before the media attention ever showed up. But this does not excuse the *#&$^Richard *#( Christian blogs which are trying to minimize this terrible tragedy.)

  12. In some ways, however, it is part of our "moral formation" to make these simplistic statements: "No, only a bad person would do this, no matter what situation he is in. No, only a crazy person would do this, no matter what pressures she was under."

    Otherwise we find ourselves in the strange place of wondering, "O.K., I know that it is crazy to punch my kid usually, but I also know that it isn't crazy to act differently when I'm under pressure, so maybe just today, while I'm feeling so pressured, I'll punch my kid." I'm actually grateful for the voices in my head that say, "No, nobody but a crazy person would even think of doing that, under any circumstances, ever. Don't go there."

    And yes, those same voices in my head saved me from following the torture-approving response to 9/11!

  13. Cynicism about the media certainly is justified, but "appealing" might not be the right word. "Acceptable" is more like is, I would say. A newspaper is no more likely to preach in a manner that offends a powerful portion of its consituency than is a Baptist preacher.

  14. For us, it seemed like an either/or situation. Either capitulate to the org's justifications and act like it didn't matter, or leave and protect our kids. As parents, we picked our kids. I know Abilene has more churches per capita than any other place (or so I've heard), but the almost uniform castigation of individuality (God's original creation?) as well as our experiences here make me wary of how community actually works. Bravo, on making waves, though. I like the waves I see you making here at E.T. :-)

  15. Yes, I think one has to find a community that allows us to be dialectical. One that pushes back on our narcissism and "me first" tendencies while also allowing for dissent and wave-making. That's a hard balance to find.

  16. I think there are times (and I think this was one of them) in which being a Christian means being at odds with the organization.  Unfortunately, it's usually the org, the tangible societal force, that wins people's allegience, because it remains a pillar of respectability, shoving a disgraceful incident out of sight while displaying its pious plumage.

  17. YES! This resonates deeply with me. The "sane" ones are the ones with the legal gun permits too.

  18. Patricia, what happened to your son is so wrong.  Our oldest (daughter) sounds a lot like your son, and has had similar experiences in a church group.  We left that place.  I try not to be overly pessimistic and cynical about Christianity, or the world in general, since I know that there is goodness in the world, and people who are caring and kind.  Some days, the injustice and cruelty in the world gets me down.  Certain issues are very sore subjects for me; bullying is one of them.  I'm sorry to be so blunt and emotionally intense in my language.  Didn't mean to reopen that past grief for you too, my friend.  {HUGS}  ~Peace~

  19. What I find challenging is that perpetrators of harm rarely see themelves as such.  On the drive home this evening, I listened to news stories about Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people, mostly youngsters, in bombing and gun attacks in Norway and described his actions as "a small barbarian act to prevent a larger barbarian act" (of multi-culturalism) and about Christopher Hunniset, who killed a former sexual partner with a hammer because he thought, despite there being no evidence, that he might be a paedophile.  "It is not wrong to try and stand up to evil in this world. Not guilty," he said in court.

    Perhaps it is because we try so hard to prove guilt against the crown or state, rather than to establish how much wrong has been done, that we demonise those who harm.  In this way, we short-circuit any reflective learning about the families and communities that produced these which we ourselves belong.  We also make it unlikely that we will ever enter the emotional world of the perpetrators, take them by the hand and lead them out of the hell they inhabit, and just as unlikely that many will be reconciled to their victims in this life.

  20. Researchers on the cutting edge of neuroscience are using PET scans, F MRI's, and gene mapping to identify brain abnormalities, the "warrior gene", etc. to study sociopathic behaviors.  Google "Without a Conscience" or "James Fallon".  Also try "scanning the sociopathic brain".

    I see the day coming, not far off, when forensic neuroscientists will testify in court about a criminal's brain scan/genetics the way DNA evidence is now routinely used.

  21. No problem, Susan, and no need to apologize. I share your trigger for issues of bullying. Not just of my children, either. It seems that most of the people I know have been through it, in one form or another.

  22. Hmm. Maybe you don't know the Baptist preachers I know, who are pretty gutsy. And maybe you don't watch the media which I do, in which the fawning over gays clearly shows that "acceptance" of gays is a joke--gays are the latest coolest trend that will make you very popular. May not be a bad thing, but I expect such popularity to be fickle and I hope that the church's concern is more lasting than the trend of the day.

  23. Absolutely! With apologies to George Will, "Gridlock means the system is working." (He was referring to Congress, but the application works more broadly.) Otherwise, power runs amok and there are no checks on the insanity.

Leave a Reply