Vinoth Ramachandra

Goodness in Evil Times

Posted on: August 23, 2014

The Italian chemist Primo Levi survived Auschwitz and wrote several reflective accounts of that experience. His book If This is a Man is an extraordinary account of his life as a slave on rations that were not sufficient to sustain life. He was saved from death by Lorenzo, a non-Jewish Italian who was working for the Germans as a civilian on an industrial project using prisoners as labourers. Levi tells us what Lorenzo meant to him:

“In concrete terms it amounts to little: an Italian civilian worker brought me a piece of bread and the remainder of his ration every day for six months; he gave me a vest of his, full of patches; he wrote a postcard on my behalf and brought me the reply. For all this he neither asked nor accepted any reward, because he was good and simple and did not think that one did good for a reward… I believe that it was really due to Lorenzo that I am alive today; and not so much for his material aid, as for his having constantly reminded me by his presence, by his natural and plain manner of being good, that there still existed a just world outside our own, something and someone still pure and whole, not corrupt, not savage, extraneous to hatred and terror; something difficult to define, a remote possibility of good, but for which it was worth surviving.”

“Thanks to Lorenzo”, Levi concludes, “I managed not to forget that I myself was a man.”

I am sure there are men and women like Lorenzo among the refugees and prisoners in Syria, Gaza, Iraq and elsewhere, who have not lost their essential humanity. We shall, no doubt, read their stories one day. But, in the meantime, it is hard not to feel sickened at the unending savagery paraded before our eyes on TV screens, newspapers and Internet websites.

But is apathy, the deadening of emotion, the cynical attitude of “let them all kill themselves out there” not also obnoxious? It is understandable when the indifference is born of fear for one’s life; but usually it stems from the fear of having to change our views if we do start asking questions about what lies behind these stories of violent conflict and recognize the complicity of our own nations.

Equally obnoxious is the way some Third World politicians jump on the “Islamic terrorism” bandwagon to court support from the US and Israel. The Sri Lankan Defence Secretary has been talking recently of the “threat of Islamic terrorism” when not a shred of evidence has been offered for the existence of any jihadist group in the country. In fact, it is Muslims who have suffered loss of life and property at the hands of militant Buddhist mobs. The background to this “threat” talk is, of course, the UNHRC’s current investigation of war crimes and other human rights abuses in Sri Lanka.

I received the usual brickbats over my last Blog post. One writer accused me of not being “balanced” by mentioning the businesses that support Hamas. I replied that I would like to know who is selling arms to Hamas so that I can boycott them; but that if I were to be truly “balanced” I would have to write a thousand words condemning Israel’s terrorism to every word condemning Hamas’s terrorism- for that, as I pointed out, is how the human proportions actually stack up.

For those who are open to questioning the received “wisdom” concerning Israel and its recent wars, I encourage you to read two brief articles by Professor Richard Falk of Princeton University:

In an Afterword to If This is a Man, Primo Levi wrote: “It is certainly true that state terrorism is a very strong weapon, very difficult to resist. But it is also true that the German people, as a whole, did not even try to resist. In Hitler’s Germany a particular code was widespread: those who knew did not talk; those who did not know did not ask questions; those who did ask questions received no answers. In this way the typical German citizen won and defended his ignorance, which seemed to him sufficient justification of his adherence to Nazism. Shutting his mouth, his eyes and his ears, he built for himself the illusion of not knowing, hence not being an accomplice to the things taking place in front of his very door.”

2 Responses to "Goodness in Evil Times"

Thank you for your articles.
It has made me think about war and what some call “just wars”.
Is an armed conflict always the last resort?
Could the war against Hitler been resolved in a different way?
Is it possible to always turn the other cheek? Or as some say, to come in the opposite spirit.
These are some of the questions I have been thinking about.

Then my next problem is, if I do believe in a just war and if I believe my government is involved in one. Then wouldn’t I have to be willing to pull the trigger too.

I would like to hear your opinion.

Mark, thank you for your comment. The questions you raise are huge, and Christian theologians (as well as others)have spilled a great deal of ink grappling with them over the centuries. The opening chapter of my book Subverting Global Myths gives some of the reasoning behind what has been called “the just war tradition”. Perhaps the best single book on the subject is Oliver O’Donovan’s The Just War Revisited.

I find I have written briefly on it in earlier Blog posts. You might want to visit “Killing Civilians” (29 May 2009) and “Hi-tech Terror” (31 July 2009). Hope these help.

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