The rabble loves cruelty. One of the witnesses in Shimon Redlich’s book describes Poles murdering Ukrainians, grabbing children by their feet and throwing them against a wall or cutting the throat of an Orthodox priest with a saw. As Mendelsohn writes, the notion that it is harder to kill those whom you know than it is to kill a total stranger may be too optimistic. We’ve recently seen that to be the case in former Yugoslavia, where neighbors murdered neighbors with whom they had lived in harmony for decades. Where does the idea of collective guilt, which excuses any crime, derive from? Is it religion that is the culprit, nationalism, ethnocentrism, all of which have constant need for enemies, or just simple malice? I suspect it is all of these. Human indifference to suffering and the pleasure of inflicting it are common; the only surprise is that we have no convincing explanation for it. Mendelsohn agrees. Why some people choose to do evil, while others follow their conscience, is something for which no one has a good answer. Of course, there’s also a third category of people, the silent majority, who close their eyes and listen to the birds sing while the children of their neighbors are having their heads bashed in.
more from Charles Simic at the New York Review of Books here.