Violence: A Modern Obsession

Ian Thomson in The Guardian:

MylaiEven HG Wells, with his uncanny gift of scientific foresight, could not have predicted the murderous flash of light over wartime Nagasaki. Never before had a government planned the atomic annihilation of an entire city. The US airmen aboard the B-29 did not, however, feel morally responsible for the violence; neither did the scientists who helped to assemble the bomb, nor even the US president and his White House advisers. Division of labour had made the contribution of any single person seem unimportant. Adolf Eichmann, by a similar agency, saw the Final Solution to the Jewish question in terms only of his own special competence (the smooth running of the Auschwitz deportation trains) and this, too, enabled him to ignore the consequences of his violence.

In Violence: A Modern Obsession, historian Richard Bessel turns an appalled eye on our recent moral past. The 20th century is seen by many as the most violent in human history. Not only Auschwitz, but the atomic holocausts in Japan and Stalin’s technocratic Soviet Union showed what a wilful and destructive misuse could be made of technology.Yet, in the west, we have become less violent, argues Bessel. Contemporary entertainment in the form of computer games and films is saturated in violence, but there has been no parallel enthusiasm for participating in ritualised mass murder. A turning point in our sensibilities came with the Vietnam war, Bessel says, when the psychological trauma of violence entered public discussion for the first time and man’s enjoyment in killing came into question. The US massacre of defenceless women and children at the Viet Cong-held village of My Lai in March 1968 prompted calls for an end to the “festival of cruelty” (as Nietzsche termed it).

More here.