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January 15, 2017 / Congau

Cruelty in Perspective?

Man is a fierce animal, no one can deny that. History is so full of reports of unfathomable cruelty that it is hard to imagine that those who committed such horrendous acts belonged to the same species as the friendly people we see around us every day. But apparently there is something in human psychology that makes them capable of such acts, something that luckily is hidden in normal situations. One can only wonder who among us could have been torturers in a Nazi concentration camp, but some of us evidently could.

We are subjects of our own psychology. That, however, does not in any way justify our behavior. If it did one could never blame anyone for anything since we are incapable of acting outside of our psychology anyway.

Still in certain circumstances people who usually are all too willing to blame their neighbors for trifles, withdraw their critique and become psychologically understanding even in the face of terrible atrocities. They are ready to excuse and explain away acts that are committed by their own side or by the side they for some reason support. What was done may have been bad, they say, but understandable due to the circumstances. That, in effect, sounds very much like an excuse.

People seem especially willing to condone what is perceived as legitimate retribution. The other side did something terrible first, so one can understand the wish and even the need for retaliation. The Nazis committed unspeakable atrocities, so clearly there was a need to get back at them after the war and one can understand it if it got a little out of hand when German women and children were deported and killed.

But one atrocity is no more or less entitled to our psychological understanding than any one other. A psychologist can probably understand the most vicious sadist and still condemn him and if we understand acts of cruel retribution, we should be no less condemning.

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