The Act of Killing: Reflections on Victims and Victimizers

I recently subscribed to Foreign Policy and just the other day got the first print edition. There is something pleasant and old-fashioned about getting a journal in hardcopy. Unfortunately this month’s issue isn’t online yet for some inexplicable reason, which is unfortunate because I was frankly startled and encouraged by an exchange between Joshua Oppenheimer and David Rieff. Both men have done work on the subject of genocide, international affairs, and humanitarian aid. While Rieff has written some books, Oppenheimer may be the better known of the two as his chilling documentary The Act of Killing was nominated for Best Documentary in 2012. All that to say, here’s some excerpts and thoughts from an exchange between Oppenheimer and Rieff.

Joshua Oppenheimer:  The task of cinema in intervening in and exploring theses issues is to actually immerse us in these problems… Most human rights documentaries… replicate that most basic form of narrative escapism, dividing the world into good guys and bad guys. That is reassuring because we inevitably identify with the good guys. But it’s problematic because it makes it difficult to understand—not in the sense to excuse, but to understand how human being do these sort of things to each other … If we don’t accept the uncomfortable proposition that every perpetrator of virtually every act of evil in our history has been a human being like us, then we actually foreclose the possibility of understanding how we do this to one another and therefore make it impossible to figure out we might prevent these things.

Generally when I think of a humanitarian, I think of the pie-in-the-sky type, but Oppenheimer articulates a good deal of wisdom here. As one of my professors once put it, the answer to the question “Why did Hitler do what he did?” is not “Because he was evil.” That’s words substituting for thought. It’s not an actual explanation, just an exercise in labeling, which blinds us to the intellectual and dare I say twisted moral force that drove Hitler to do what he did. If we reduce explanations of what happened to mere adjectives and a good-evil binary we will forever be children.

David Rieff picks up the conversation from here.

I completely agree with the centrality of the issue that these people are like ourselves. One must not give into the narcissism of the fact that one is above the ground rather than under it. I think that we have very romantic views of ourselves and of progress, so that indeed we don’t think the killers are like us. There’s a wonderful story that [writer] Clive James used to tell of being at a cocktail party in London and having all these people talking about what it would’ve been like to have been a prisoner in a concentration camp. As he writes, the more interesting question is not, what would you have done if you’d been a prisoner in Auschwitze or in Barkhausen? But instead, what would you have done if you’d been a guard? The fact is, we tell ourselves fairy tales. Maybe people always did; maybe people always will. But one of the most uncomfortable things I’ve learned is how rapidly a victim becomes a victimizer, and a victimizer a victim. And I’ve never recovered from that.

This is a bold and rather uncomfortable point. Rieff turns the victim and victimizer paradigm on its head. There is a profound moral revulsion to the holocaust (as an aside: apparently not all Jews are comfortable with this term because of it’s Greek Gentile origins. They prefer the word Shoah meaning “catastrophe”). But the irony is that our revulsion at how the Nazis utterly dehumanized their victims in turn leads us to dehumanize the perpetrators of the violence. They become monsters. Consequently, the moral high ground of the victim creates an imbalance of humanity from which standpoint the victim becomes a force of unbridled, God-like destruction and judgement.

Oppenheimer picks up the thread.

I think that there’s something that you said that was crucial: When the society becomes indignant, it can become hubristic. I think that indignation is pleasurable, and it’s pleasurable because it’s self-righteous; the world becomes kind of distorted and obscured by this false moral view of oneself.

As Oppenheimer goes to point out, the moral supremacy of the victims can lead to a distorted view in which the victims and, more importantly, their advocates ignore uncomfortable facts about themselves. In this case, your neighbor may have a log in his eye, but he’s still your neighbor, a human being; and don’t forget about the speck in your own eye either.

But this leads back to the point about evil having a moral force behind it. Self-righteous judgments blinds one to the moral force that animates the victimizer. The Nazi chose his path for a reason and he was animated by a logic that made him sacrifice for the cause. Without understanding this, we become vulnerable to falling into similar traps.  The Nazi guard and the American soldier are both driven by a moral impulse. This does not mean they are morally equivalent, but it is to identify a common moral force that if not properly thought through gets mankind (victim and victimizer alike) into terrible situations for seemingly good reasons in the moment.

This leads Rieff to conclude:

[O]ne has to start talking about who these people are as people—that the victimizers are like us. As [French poet Charles] Baudelaire said, “mon semblable, mon frere”—”my double, my brother.” Until we face that, we’re just going to keep going to ceremonies that honor heroic people. But that doesn’t help one understand, and indeed it does make one smug.

This attitude explains the subtlety and humanity of Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. There is no question that the subjects in question, murderous anti-communists, did horrific things on dubious pretenses. But Oppenheimer demonstrates an appreciation of the psychology and purpose behind the acts. He shows not only the pain of victims, but the moral anguish (or lack-thereof) of victimizers as well. In the end, both sides are collapsed together in a single tale of woe. My double, my brother.


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