Deep Reads #5: Calculus

From William T. Vollman’s Rising Up and Rising Down:  Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means.

COPS LOOKING FOR MOLEST CASE SUSPECT:  Penang – Police are looking for a factory bus driver who allegedly fondled the breasts of a 23-year-old woman in Air Itam here recently…It is learnt that the suspect also kissed the woman.

Malaysia being a Muslim country, what the bus driver did was very likely a terrible assault upon the woman’s pride and sacred secretness.  She must have been veiled, in which case his kissing her would have been as much an act of exposure, of humiliation, as his snatching her breasts into his hands.  Call it a rape.  When I asked my Thai companion, D., how she would have responded had he done this to her, she said, “Me?  Maybe I laugh.  Don’t like so much.  Maybe little bit angry, but I try to talk to him.  I think he need some girlfriend.  Maybe I say to him, you very silly boy.”

The conclusion I come to (one abhorrent to local law, but agreeable to the contradictions of international customs) is that a major defining ethical constituent of violence is the unique relationship between each victim and the perpetrator at a given time.  That is why even the sternly consistent Martin Luther warns the sixteenth-century German princes that they must be guided by their own minds and consciences in any given case of legal judgment — and why it is permissible, for instance, for somebody to kill one person in wartime but not another, and neither one in peacetime.  And if the motive and the context are so crucial, then we must ask whether one can with equal justification kill out of hatred, out of fear, out of rational self-defense or out of mercy?

Arendt, musing upon the “pale” and “ghostlike” figure of the accused Eichmann in his glass booth, insisted:  “If he suffers, he must suffer for what he has done, not for what he has caused others to suffer.”  As a general rule, this principle is demonstrably untrue.  D., a live-and-let-live Buddhist from a sexually more easy country than Malaysia (the rural markets usually have on the walls colored advertising posters with photos of naked women) would not have suffered what the twenty-three-year-old Muslim woman presumably did.  I know this because I know D.  This is not to say that she would have suffered nothing; for in public life Thais are sufficiently modest that the public kissing of European lovers inspires them with disgust.  Nor would that brute of a bus driver be any more justified in fondling her than he would have in the case of a Muslim girl.  But D. never wore a veil.  She would have been kissed without being uncovered.  In short, she would have been humiliated, not raped.  She would have shrugged it off and tried not to be shamed; the Muslim girl might well have been hurt to the core.  And had, let’s say, a man in Mexico City done this to D., and not a bus driver whom she could not get away from but a seatmate whose escalating flirting she had ignored; had the bus also, let’s say, been filled with drunken soccer players who were groping giggling cheerleaders at least some of whom desired an orgy, I would, again, not excuse the brute, but I would be slightly less angry, thinking of him (as I do my friend from the rough town) as someone who didn’t know where to stop as opposed to someone who coolly initiated something.  And I would think even worse of the Malaysian bus driver had he forced his attentions on the woman if no other passengers were on the bus than if the bus were crowded; for if the bus were empty the woman would feel more alone and helpless, the act hence more the vicious one of intimidation, domination and humiliation.  If the same action can cause significantly different degrees of injury to different victimes, then the deed itself cannot be adequately described without context.

Arendt gets around this by substituting the social fabric as a whole for the personal vagaries of any victim — a Kantian strategy which “may be rendered by saying that the undeserved evil which anyone commits on another is to be regarded as perpetrated on himself…This is the right of retaliation (jus talonis); and…is the only principle which in regulating a public court, as distinguished from mere private judgement, can definitely assign both the quality and the quantity of a just penalty.”

Thus Eichmann’s genocide was in Nuremberg parlance a crime against humanity because it attacked human diversity, without which the whole concept of humanity becomes reduced to ethnicity or nationality.  This argument is valid in Eichmann’s case, and would remain so if his expertise had killed only one person instead of millions; who except the suicidally inclined (whose case will be taken up later in this book) would be at variance over the ultimate negativity of death?  Had the Malaysian molester done his deed not with a kiss but with a dagger, then D. and the woman on the bus would have been more equally harmed.  If not, then the merely normative approach fails to hold.

Interestingly enough, the importance of context from the other point of view — the aggressor’s — was recognized up to a point even ant Nuremberg.  Just as the military court which tried and sentenced the assassins of President Lincoln endured (and probably instigated) experts’ haggles on whether they were mentally or morally insane — in the end, they decided that the law didn’t care — so too the Nuremberg tribunal ground through the motions of debate as to whether Rudolf Hess was sane enough to stand trial.  In Churchill’s memoirs he’s implied to be mad; and the prosecutor Telford Taylor portrays a defendant rarely able to concentrate, listen or remember.  The remarkable point is that the issue was raised at all.  In the end, expediency, justice, or perhaps vindictiveness won out, and Hess was tried.  A decade and a half later, so was Eichmann, who displayed a different sort of madness.  I wish that Kant had been there, for vis-a-vis the “I just followed orders” defense the philosopher expresses agreement:  “The good or bad consequences arising from the performance of an obligated action — as also to the consequences arising from failing to perform a meritorious action — cannot be imputed to the agent (modus imputationis poneus)”.  The implication is that the social medium in which one swims (or, as Kant probably would have preferred to put it, the institutional uniform in which one clothes oneself) automatically justifies the actions which it condones and commands.  By conforming and obeying, the Eichmanns are exculpated.  I would have loved to see the look on the chief prosecutor’s face.  Well, if I’d been there when Eichmann was speaking, I guess I would have seen it; for this was precisely the argument which that monster used.  Whether one agrees with his line or not (and I don’t), it surely makes a difference to our moral or metaphysical understanding of his crimes (“I committed mass murder”) — as opposed to our juridical comprehension (“I upheld my obligation to authority”, or perhaps the very different “I violated the international laws against war crimes”) –whether Eichmann donned the livery of the state in 1939 or simply flew the colors of a nonrepresentative cabal whose ‘agent’ he was.  In one case (the most likely one), the regime made him what he was.  In the other, he would have done it regardless, like the opportunistic rapist in the elevator.  Either way, let’s hang hi, but if the first cause is the dominant one, then we’ve learned that there’s something very useful we can do with our lives:  study Nazism in detail, in order to discover how to prevent it from coming to life again.  If the second case gets privileged, it’s more utilitarian to study the various Eichmanns.


%d bloggers like this: