Our Monsters

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my recent reading I have been noticing the word monster applied
to human beings (other than Newt Gingrich). I’m a little wary
of the word. It makes it too easy for us to disown fellow human
beings, as if their sins had nothing to do with us.

A scholarly
book reviewer uses the word of Mao Zedong, whose doctor’s memoir
has exposed the chairman’s personal tyranny over his court
as well as his utter callousness toward the hundreds of millions
of people in whose name he ruled. A case in point, as shocking as
poignant, is the story of a circus Mao attended in which a child
acrobat took a terrible fall. The crowd was horrified as attendants
rushed to care for the child; but Mao himself kept chatting and
laughing with his entourage as if nothing had happened. And he never
inquired about the child afterward.

One anecdote
after another reveals Mao as cruel, isolated, self-centered, and
indifferent to the suffering of others – as when he refused
to accept treatment for the venereal disease with which he was infecting
the hundreds of young women he took to bed. “What difference
does it make?” he asked. “It isn’t bothering me.”

The review
uses other words besides monster – psychotic, for example.
But the language of psychology merely supplies us with technical-sounding
words for the same thing: the shocking absence of ordinary human

Now it is remarkable
how often we are driven to use such words of twentieth-century rulers:
Mao, Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Idi Amin stand out, but
the list could be lengthened. All of which raises a question: Do
such unnatural “monsters” have a natural tendency to rise
to the top? Or does being on top tend to release the latent monster
in everyone?

The question
almost answers itself. We all see how bullying people become when,
dressed in a little brief authority, they have even a slight advantage
in power over their fellows. You can see it in the petty bureaucrats
you sometimes encounter in such a small matter as renewing your
driver’s license: the insolence of office!

Now some of
these people, however, rude, are basically decent. But some of them
are the sort of people who carry out orders for whoever happens
to be in power. Notice that the rulers we call “monsters”
and “psychopaths” are able to rely on countless “normal”
people to execute their directives. That is what should shock us
perpetually. It should shock us into examining our own souls. It’s
also the best reason for limiting the state.

The other “monster”
in the news these days is of course Susan Smith, the woman who tearfully
pleaded for the return of “my babies” when she herself
had already murdered them. We can accept a man who drops bombs on
cities as normal – we may even cheer him as a hero – but
not a woman who kills her own children.

I gather Susan
Smith had no history of mistreating her children. She even seems
to be genuinely horrified at what she has done. But if she’d
aborted them, she’d still be “normal.”

Dr. Thomas
Szasz, author of the seminal book The
Myth of Mental Illness
, points out that it has become our
habit to see “mental illness” in every shocking act. The
habit of referring to all severe cruelty to “psychosis”
and the like has the ironic effect of making evil self-exculpating.
No “normal” person, we like to think, could do such things.
We mean to imply that we could never do them. Dr. Szasz observes
that many people nowadays profess to believe in God but not in hell.
In the modern mind, a therapeutic “mercy” swallows up

I like what
the Roman fellow said: “I think nothing human alien to me.”
When I read of a Mao or a Susan Smith, I try to imagine their temptations,
not to exculpate them, but to implicate myself. Part of the greatness
of Macbeth lies in the way it shows terrible crimes from the inside,
without in the least excusing them.

Lead us not
into temptation.

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