A question of responsibility

How much responsibility should we take for our individual actions? How much responsibility should we assume for the actions of our children?  How much responsibility should we bear for the kind of society we have?  Or for the kind of world we have?

All over the world thoughtful people are asking these questions, especially as they confront what seem like bizarre, irrational, and outrageous actions committed by fellow human beings.  Events such as the methodical hijacking and suicidal crashing of passenger jet planes into buildings on September 11, 2001 instantly come to mind. But less catastrophic events happen everyday that should elicit reflection.

Often we release ourselves from the moral grip of these events by taking refuge behind simplistic labels. “Terrorism” is one such label. It has no doubt secured for the United States and its allies a warrant to launch a war against nations, groups, and individuals it tags as terrorists.  But it is doubtful whether the use of this term has allowed us to understand events better so that we may lessen the possibility of their repetition in the future.

For a long time, Germany wrestled with the haunting memory of the Holocaust, the mass destruction of Jews under the direction of Adolf Hitler.  Many Germans denied knowing the magnitude of the massacre and the circumstances that induced a certain blindness in those who stood by while their own neighbors searched vainly for hiding places to avoid being rounded up.  Even more important, they denied responsibility for the unspeakable atrocities committed by the Nazi leadership. They claimed to be ordinary citizens with no power to do anything to stop their leaders who had gone mad.  They were completely oblivious of their own silent hopes and desires that bound them to Hitler’s policies toward the Jews.

Daniel Goldhagen’s 1996 book, “Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust”, confronts them with the responsibility they must share with those who directly participated in the extermination of six million Jews.  Goldhagen carefully documents numerous instances when ordinary Germans with no formal affiliation to the Nazis instigated or joined in hate campaigns against the Jews in the years preceding the Holocaust.  He argues that Hitler was but a symptom of a pathological culture that had taken root in the German psyche long before the Nazis embarked on a systematic elimination of the Jewish people.

The long-standing debate on the extent of individual accountability recently re-surfaced in Germany when a 19-year-old high school student who had been expelled from school ran amok and killed 13 of his former teachers, 2 fellow students, and a policeman.  What became known as the Gutenberg massacre provoked a nation-wide discussion on the question of shared responsibility.  Many asked how it was possible for the parents of this disturbed boy not to have known of his problems at school.  Others blamed the procedures of the school.  Still others raised the fear of failure that is inculcated in students in the extremely competitive environment of modern society.

But one writer from the German newspaper Die Zeit, Ilka Piepgras, made a point that goes against the theme of societal culpability.  In an article written for Newsday (reprinted in Today 5/17/02), Piepgras writes: “Germans tend to blame their society as a whole for any kind of personal misstep, instead of expecting individuals to account for themselves…. We like to think of ourselves as victims: of an abusive dictator such as Hitler or a dictatorial system such as socialism, which is one reason why the process of coming to terms with Hitler’s horrible reign has never really worked out.  People would blame him and his thugs, and not question the role they or their families played during the Third Reich.”

Piepgras’s view is that all too often our readiness to blame society tends to blind us to our own personal accountability not only for our actions but for the state of affairs that victimizes us all.  This is understandable.  It is not easy to cultivate the kind of introspection and moral imagination that allows us to criticize ourselves and to admit that there may indeed be instances when we quietly applaud something that is patently wrong.

“Man is very well defended against himself,” says Nietzsche, “against his own spying and sieges; usually he is able to make out no more of himself than his outer fortifications.  The actual stronghold is inaccessible to him, even invisible, unless friends and enemies turn traitor and lead him there by the secret path.”

I think we slowly gain access to this stronghold as we develop the habit of seeing what we take for granted with a new pair of eyes. Yitzhak Laor, an Israeli poet, had such an insight recently when the Ministry of Education of Israel instructed schools to require schoolchildren to bring parcels and write appreciative letters to Israeli soldiers after they laid siege on the Palestinian refugee camp of Jenin.  On seeing his own 7-year-old son scribble a letter, he notes in an essay for the London Review of Books: “Hundreds of thousands of children wrote such letters when the war against a civilian population was at its most extreme.  Imagine the ideological commitment of those children in the future.”

Looking at our own country, I think it is useful to ask how much responsibility we must all personally bear for a nation half of whose citizens must live without hope.


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