Torture works, said the leader of the free world this week. Perhaps, but it’s also jolly sore. And that is civilisation’s objection to torture: nothing to do with whether it gets the job done.
Deceit also works. Intimidation works. Cocaine, coercion and corruption work: demonstrably so. But you don’t get to use those things and still call yourself human. No: the decoupling of ethics from efficacy is the sole achievement of civilisation. Everything else is just ways to pass the time.
This week began with President Trump’s inauguration and ends, neatly enough, with Holocaust Memorial Day. The Holocaust was the starkest expression of the surrender of ethics to expediency, and as we reflect on this it is well – as always – to acknowledge the undeniable first line of Primo Levi’s If This is a Man:
“It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944, that is, after the German Government had decided, owing to the scarcity of labour, to lengthen the average lifespan of the prisoners destined for elimination; it conceded noticeable improvements in the camp routine and temporarily suspended killings at the whim of individuals.”
That so many millions of souls could be extinguished on the altar of political expediency, and the flow of their extermination modulated by the faucet of economic necessity, is an enduring benchmark for evil.
Holocaust Memorial Day is a moment to remind ourselves and our children about where evil comes from. Because far more disturbing than the notion that Hitler was an unknowable madman is the recognition that he was a most familiar kind of pragmatist. For it is in those compromises with expediency – those glib accommodations that we also find in ourselves, in our own protean transgressions of corruption, of enabling, of appeasement – that we see the path from us to him, from here to there, from then to now.
“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions” – Primo Levi
When we remember the Holocaust, it isn’t only the ideology or the architecture that turns our blood to ice. It’s the walls of looted suitcases. It’s the gold teeth extracted for profit. The whole in-crowd got rich. It worked.
It is facile to compare Trump with Hitler, a slim man who owned sixteen thousand books and murdered six million Jews. Instead we remember the dead, who don’t tweet. We can remember them through the work of writers like Levi, who survived the Holocaust in a manner of speaking only to “die at Auschwitz forty years later”, as Elie Wiesel put it.
Instead of making easy comparisons, on this of all days, we can simply remember that there is always a path from here to there. It is a familiar path that begins at our own feet and ends in enduring horror. There is an old, familiar path, and we shiver when we hear the groan of its great iron gate swinging open.