Can a good man spend his days doing bad things and remain a good man? What if he chooses to spend his days doing bad things and could at any time elect not to do the bad things? Could decide – I am not comfortable with this; this isn’t for me – and quit, without risking anything (other than the need to find honest work)?
The German SA man of the 1930s was a very bad man – but he did, at least, have the defense of being under duress.
In 1930s Germany, it was socially (if not legally) difficult for any man to not become a willing helper of Hitler’s in some capacity – or at least, give the appearance thereof. One joined the partei – and sieg heiled along with the crowd. To not do so invited suspicion at minimum – and the very real likelihood of much worse. God help you if you publicly criticized the national socialist state or its leaders.
An even better example of duress would be the camp guard. He had the choice of being on one side of the razor wire – or the other side. We still condemn him for being a cog in the machine of mass murder. But – at some level – his guilt is mitigated by the fact that he could not just walk away without accepting severe repercussions.
It took a brave man – a hero, to use that much over-used word – to say, “no. I won’t be a part of this” – and accept the consequences, come what may.
Very few such men stepped up.
Can any such man be a good man?
Is his guilt mitigated by the fact that some of his work is good? What is the magical proportion? And what is the tipping point, beyond which the man can no longer expect to be considered good, regardless of the rest?
That point has probably been reached as regards law enforcement in America. The change of terminology is itself a kind of tacit acknowledgement of this fact. Also revelatory are the uniforms, equipment, the “look” and – most of all – the attitude. A mix of fear (of us, the indigs) and contempt (also for us).
The latter sentiment is now felt by the indigs for them. (i.e., the law enforcers).
The indigs did not used to feel this way – perhaps because they were not regarded with fear and contempt – and treated as indigs. And perhaps because the balance of things was more inclined toward peace-keeping rather than law enforcing.
The SA man and his sort existed to enforce compliance with the edicts of the state. They were law enforcers. Never forget that what the Nazis did was entirely legal under their system of government. This was their defense after the war, at Nuremburg. A still-sane world (at that time) rejected this defense because it grokked the distinction between legal and moral – and understood that a thing could be perfectly legal and morally loathsome. And that human beings had a moral obligation not to do loathsome things, regardless of “the law.”
Unfortunately, that lesson – that distinction – has slipped our collective memory.
This may not be accidental.
Because for history to repeat, that distinction must be smudged into meaninglessness; the lesson of history forgotten.
Hence the refrain, “I’m just doing my job.”
This is what Hannah Arendt meant when she spoke of the banality of evil.
Its ordinaryness. Its stumbling bureaucratic nature. The DMV – and the “resettlement office” of Adolf Eichmann differ only in degree. This is the critical point and if not understood – and dealt with – in the very near future, while there is still time, it will inevitably, lead to a critical mass.
One senses there is not much time left.
And yet, it would be so easy to defuse the bomb before it goes off.
We descend into the abyss solely and only because we – as a society – have lost sight of the plain-spoken, one-time American notion of leaving other people alone so long as they are leaving other people alone. It is – it was- the keystone principle that, when generally accepted, made a free society possible.
Rescind (reject) this principle and a free society become impossible.
It will not happen all at once, nor overnight. But little infringements lead inexorably to bigger ones until – one day – we find there is nothing left to infringe. No line behind which we are, at last, safe. Our lives are no longer our own; no decision ours exclusively. Fear and its byproducts – anger and resentment – replace goodwill and ordinary human decency.
This already happening (see here) and will happen more and more often – unless the Gordian Knot is cut in two by our rejection of busybodyism and control freak-ism. No more “uplifting” (as H.L. Mencken nattily styled it).
And no more law enforcing.
Leave people alone, if they’re leaving you (and others) alone.
It’s what good men do.
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