In our times, there seem to be disagreements over every single little thing. One of the few things virtually everyone can agree on – across religion, ideology and nationality – is that Nazis were greatly evil. The extraordinary viciousness and brutality of their crimes often leads us to think that these people were intrinsically and uniquely evil.
I believe this thinking is actually dangerous. Nazis are proof of the great human capacity for evil. Describing Nazis as unique monsters who are nothing like us suggests that evil resides out there, in a few twisted beings. If you’ve seen Tarantino movies you know what I mean. Nazi after Nazi is killed or tortured in Inglorious Basterds in ways that induce laughter and celebration in the characters as well as the viewers.
Nazis spent nine months in their mothers’ wombs. They had families, brothers and sisters. As little kids they cried when they got hurt, they laughed, they rode bikes, they played with their friends. Nazis felt butterflies in their stomach when they saw their crush. They went to the movies, danced and drank beer. They had fears and moments of tiredness. They had pets and dreams of family and important jobs. They had arguments, they had to use the bathroom, they would trip and hope nobody saw them.
Do these young Germans look like they was born as evil monsters?
Nazis were and are humans just like us. To recognize that there is a continuity and a shared nature between extraordinarily bad people like Hitler, extraordinarily good people like Martin Luther King and the rest of us in between, is a requirement if we truly wish to make the world a better place.
How then did cute little kids turn into adults responsible for terrible atrocities? If we are to blame their parents, that just requires us to ask: why were they such bad parents? Are we to blame the children’s grandparents and so on?
Individuals or societies do not become as evil as Nazis in one day. It is over the course of hundreds of small and large decisions that we end up where we are. A step in one direction or in another barely seems to have any effect on where we stand. It is this human tendency to see the recent past and the short-term future which ends us up in bad places without even realizing how we got there.
Take the 2007 global financial crisis. Like the Third Reich’s supremacy ideas, it seems obvious in retrospect that the greedy risky practices of corporations and banks were leading us to collapse. Rarely can we or do we even try to see the long term ramifications of our actions: and yet, the combined effect of many people acting in short-sighted, irresponsible ways created a snowball effect that would send a world of 7 billion people into a global recession.
Who caused the problem here? Every person who took a small step in that direction: the government regulators who didn’t stop greedy businesses, the politicians who appointed those incompetent regulators, the greedy businesses themselves, the lower and middle income people who took out loans they had little chance of paying back, the acceptance and contribution each one of us may have shown to a culture of selfish attitudes when it comes to our relationships, money, careers, etc. After all, the culture we create is where politicians and businessmen come from.
The point of the financial crisis is how small deviations from a good path are later accepted as the norm. Then we become tempted to deviate a little more and a little more. This logic explains how people become hard core drug users. Nobody starts as a heroin user. It is small steps in a bad direction that eventually lead us to think “I’m already doing alcohol, tobacco, weed, cocaine… why not meth?”.
This is how Nazi Germany became what it was. That’s how ISIS became what it is. Step after step in the wrong direction; a process millions participate in, over the course of decades. Great evils such as hard drugs, terrorism and ultra-nationalism, share in common another thing: they are desperate reactions to a problematic world, which ironically takes their supporters further down a bad path.
The Arab world was the leader in science, culture, philosophy and mathematics centuries ago. There is nothing guaranteeing 21st century societies from heading down a dark path too, except choosing small steps away from the wrong and towards the good. It’s time we start putting our cerebral cortices to good use and start looking at the long term direction we have been taking and will be taking, considering that perhaps, today’s norms have already suffered a few deviations.
Perhaps the first thing we can do is to stop celebrating the punishments, deaths and misfortunes of those who are evil and those we hate. We can’t judge their being because we don’t know the full nature of their circumstances. Perhaps, we would have been just like them or they would been just like us if we were born in each other’s place. Condemn and correct wrongdoings? Yes, but recognize the humanity and the value of the person behind these acts.
Once we recognize the absolute value of everybody, from the best to the worst of us humans, we can see that we are all on this boat together. Trying to sink others or not caring about the water coming in on their side of the ship is a comical, terrible delusion. Each of us takes a step everyday towards good or bad, or somewhere in between. A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.