A few days ago I was with a group of people when the topic of the Armenian genocide came up. The immediate reason for the topic to come up was the action of several European legislatures to declare that the events of 1915 in Turkey should indeed be called a genocide (there has been a campaign to have a similar action by the U.S. Congress). This was recently capped by a move in the Dutch parliament to make denial of the Armenian genocide a punishable crime. This of course is to follow the precedent in several countries to make it a crime to deny the Jewish Holocaust during World War II. All of this, along with the stubborn refusal of Turkey to acknowledge the fact (to do so is, conversely, a crime in Turkey), let alone to apologize for it, would be an interesting matter to pursue here. For now, however, I want to deal with a different aspect of this topic.
During the aforementioned conversation some people repeated the perennial question: How is it possible that human beings could commit such horrible atrocities? Again and again this question is asked—with regard to the Holocaust, and to such more recent events as the mass atrocities in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda. Commonly the question is given weight by the recollection that previous to the outbreak of genocidal violence the affected two groups lived with each other peacefully for long periods of time, even intermarried—Armenians and Turks, German Jews and their Gentile neighbors, Bosnian Muslims and Serbs, Tutsis and Hutus. (In that respect, the Cambodian case is distinctive, describable as auto-genocide, with no or religious or ethnic differences between victims and murderers.) Of course each case is unique. Thus there has been a strong animus in the Jewish community to subsume the Holocaust under some general category that would depreciate its uniqueness (as when, as is sometimes done, the mass murders of Hitler and Stalin are described as similar). I think that this desire to insist on the uniqueness of each particular horror is understandable as well as intellectually valid. Nevertheless, there remains the lamentable fact that mass murders of one kind of another have been perpetrated since the dawn of time. Once one faces this reality, all of history appears as a long string of atrocities. If I recall correctly, it is a character in Joyce’s Ulysses who exclaims “History is a nightmare from which I hope to awake.”
I suppose that we are all children of the Enlightenment and its optimistic view of human nature as essentially benign and of history as the march of progress. These assumptions may lie dormant in our consciousness, well short of the expression of a coherent worldview. But absent such assumptions we could still be horrified by the murderous actions, but we would not be surprised by them.
The Biblical tradition evokes a much darker view of man and of history. Christianity has asserted that human beings are under the sway of original sin. Gilbert Keith Chesterton observed that this is the only Christian doctrine which does not require faith—it is empirically verifiable. Judaism may be less pessimistic in that it has no such doctrine, but arguably it is more pessimistic for a different reason: as Abraham Heschel has pointed out, Judaism takes the unredeemed character of the world more seriously. In that perspective, Christians are overly optimistic by asserting that redemption is already underway since the coming of Christ. Be this as it may, I am not about to enter into this theological thicket. Let me propose a darker view in purely secular terms.
The rejection of the so-called “Enlightenment project” by some postmodernists and others is inappropriate. We owe much to that particular turn in history—for its devotion to reason and to the universality of human rights. All the same, its optimism cannot be empirically sustained. History undergoes certain progresses (in the plural), such as advances in the protection of human rights. But each progress is reversible. And Rousseau and others like him were wrong in thinking that man is by nature benevolent, and only turns to evil if led there by oppressive institutions. Actually, pretty much the opposite is the case: man is by nature homicidal, unless restrained from acting out of his natural impulses by institutions that foster benevolence. It is this perspective, I think, that is empirically sustainable. If one wants to put this into an evolutionary frame, one might say that homo sapiens is a pathological mutation of the anthropoid ape—so to speak a chimpanzee gone wrong. I don’t really want to go down that road.
How is it possible that human beings could commit such horrible atrocities? Let me suggest that this question should be reversed: How is it possible that human beings can live together peacefully for long periods of time without committing horrible atrocities? The general answer to that question is quite simple: it is possible if institutions are in place to socialize individuals to behave peacefully and to punish those who act otherwise. It seems to me that the identification and construction of such institutions is the true “Enlightenment project”.