Thursday, December 18, 2014

The darkness within...


In "Black Goddess," I explored one emotionally tormented man's obsession with finding  the secret of evil; facing the darkness at the heart of the human soul.  To do that, I featured one of evil's purest and most potent manifestations:  torture.

I had to do a little research, reading accounts written by torture survivors.  Torture was described as something like a dark force or malignancy that spreads from the body to the mind and soul and eventually becomes dominant.  I also read analyses of how therapists reacted to the stories told them by survivors, and how it affected them.  (Some recoiled from the horror of it and discouraged their patients against digging it up, while others reveled in the horror and the pain.)  I also read accounts written by people who'd been trained by regimes that regularly used torture on political prisoners.  Not surprisingly, the trainers would look for a certain personality type; one that wants to inflict pain.  (They would use live subjects, and offer the trainees their choice of weapons.  Choose a knife, you were in.  Choose a gun, they didn't want you as a torturer; no taste for inflicting pain.)

Torture is in many ways the ultimate avatar of evil, because it depends on the complete absence or negation of the most basic human instinct for empathy with a fellow human being.  The average butcher has more compassion for the animal he slaughters than the torturer has for his victim.  When one's very goal, one's very craft, and more one's passion is to inflict pain on another, then what is left to define humanity?  Even in war, respect for the basic human rights of a captured enemy is a basic pillar of civilization.  Yes, there is a side to human nature that gives in to hate and becomes the very object of one's hatred:  pure evil.  But, civilization is based on the side of human nature that empathizes and learns compassion and understanding.  So, which side is the true face of humanity?  The cruel, unforgiving side like Sparta, that considered failure and weakness capital crimes, embracing the soldier above all?  Or, the kinder, more reflective side like Athens, that revered wisdom and beauty?  Both were products of the human soul.  But, what determines which path a people choose, and do they know where it leads?

Which path are we on now?  The CIA's torture report is out:    
Yes, our government tortured people in the name of national security.  The strategic value of statements acquired under torture was at best questionable, at worst useless.  No one has been brought to justice as yet for these acts and probably never will be.  And, officials that were in office at the time openly boast they'd do it again.

So, what does this say about us as a people?  Well, the report is out.  At least we're an open society.  The White House is not hiding the truth from the American people, as the Nazis hid the Final Solution from the German people.  (Bearing in mind, these were acts committed by a previous administration and published by a current administration perhaps desperately trying to make the voting public look with distaste at the opposing party.)  But, perhaps the openness and apparent lack of shame is less a positive than a negative sign of the times.  I suppose the telling test of our society will be how the public ultimately reacts to this information now that it's out in the open.  There will be differences of opinion, of course; demonstrations and counter-demonstrations.  In the end, probably no prosecutions, at least not at the highest levels of government.  Some will maintain it was necessary.  Others will openly revel in the sweet revenge and say in offices or on the Internet that we should have more of it.  Most will just want to forget.

Yes, we can revel in the infliction of pain on those we demonize.  We can look the other way as people are butchered on our own streets, because their skin is a different color.  We can resign ourselves to perpetual war waged from a comfortable distance with mindless machines that kill for us at the touch of a button.  Yes, it's easier to hate and kill than it is to forgive or heal.  But, that complete disconnect from compassion and empathy does have a price, and an insidious one.  We can tell ourselves it's necessary, that we're doing it to save lives and preserve freedom.  We may even believe it.  But, the means always determine the ends.  Turn readily and easily to killing and torture, and that's what you become.  No, it doesn't happen overnight.  It's an evolutionary journey, softened by an endless parade of excuses, rationalizations and euphemisms.  It's not torture; It's enhanced interrogation.  Those aren't dead civilians; They're collateral damage.  No, we're not ready yet to install gas chambers or crematoria at Gitmo.  But, will we be, someday?  And above all, would the mainstream population protest it?

Open your heart to the darkness when an enemy strikes at you, and the darkness creeps little by little into your soul, until that's all there is.  You wake up one morning and realize that's who you are now.  Maybe, that's who you always were, deep down.

In "Black Goddess" the protagonist finds a way back from the darkness through love.  In real life, that may not be enough.  Not for everyone.  Sometimes, there is no way back.  Not for those who hate and kill us, and not for us, once the disease spreads from attacker to attacked.

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