I recently read an article about ISIS and the beheadings and their burning of the Jordanian pilot. Then I read something about the Rape of Nanking by the Japanese in World War II. I thought how savage and brutal – how primitive. And how foreign. And a few pages over, I found an article titled History of Lynchings in the South Documents Nearly 4,000 Names (NY Times, 2/10/15, A11).
Four thousand? Four thousand! Of course I knew there had been lynchings. Lots of them. I thought maybe a couple of hundred. Good grief. Four thousand. How savage, brutal – and primitive. But not foreign. Here, right here at home.
The graph showed red dots, big and little, representing the number of lynchings all over the South from 1877 to 1950. I will show my near speechlessness with yet another repetitive exclamation. 1950?! I was born by 1950, so there were lynchings in my lifetime! And, like ISIS, white Americans did worse than lynch. Black men were subjected to castration, stabbing, beating, and being set afire.
As you might expect, most of the red dots were in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida. I can’t grasp it. I have always been fascinated with evil, and in particular with how ordinary people can do evil and still believe themselves to be pretty good folks. I have read up on psychopathy, have read about the Nazi doctors and death camp commanders, about slavery, and still – I can’t see into it.
I want to see into it. I want to understand. I get it how an individual can do a dreadful thing once in a lifetime, or how an individual can be psychopathic and do lots of dreadful things. But how does a whole society agree to participate in atrocity? Sure I know the reasons given to some of the well-documented events (punitive damage payments after WWI contributed to the rise of Nazism, for example, racism and economic pressure in the South halted Reconstruction) but those facts only help explain on the intellectual level. On the visceral level, I cannot comprehend it.
And it has happened always and everywhere. No, not always. But it has happened over and over again all around the globe. I really cannot comprehend how we can do this to each other.