Art at its best provokes insight into the human condition. Film, depicting various human situations and inviting critical analysis as it does, can provide a mother lode of potential enlightenment.
What do films like Silence of the Lambs and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo reveal about us? For one thing, both feature female heroines – a profound shattering of age-old myths about woman’s helplessness and dependence on man. Interestingly, in the earlier film, Silence, the heroine is proper and pretty, whereas two decades later, in Girl, she is counter-culture to the max. The directors of these films and especially the authors of the novels upon which they are based are owed a debt for their contributions toward greater inclusiveness and acceptance of those who don’t fit societal stereotypes or ideals.
The villains of the films suggest that the scariest and most demonic monsters are not strange hairy creatures with claws and double-hinged jaws, but beings who look like us, indeed, who are us – humans behaving badly, like Hannibal Lecter and the fathers of Harriet and Lisbeth. On the scary meter, Hitler blows Werewolf and Frankenstein out of the water, though different regions may have their own special Fuhrers: Congolese might most revile King Leopold II of Belgium; Haitians, the Duvaliers; Chileans, Pinochet (and Nixon?); East Timorese, Suharto (and Kissinger?). Some might picture a nonhuman entity, as Guatemalans haunted by images of the United Fruit Company. A monster might be handsome and charming, as for instance Ted Bundy. It might be soft spoken or a stirring orator, gifted in rhetoric, capable of weaving quasi-logical arguments out of thin air and making them believable.
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Human monsters may suck the blood of innocents, but they can’t be fended off by a crucifix worn around the neck. They might skulk and plot in secrecy, but don’t wait until the full moon to get nasty. They live, not on distant planets or in murky swamps, but among us, in fine homes with gardens. They are able to direct the use of lethal weapons, even ones that inflict “mass destruction.” Human monsters may work in government offices.
Human monsters might be decent individuals and pillars of the community. They may have lived moral lives, loving to friends and kind to strangers, showing no signs of bloodlust or murderous tendencies. For many, that all seems to change when they are elected or otherwise elevated to positions of authority.
Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Why? Because once accepted into the club, one is de facto in allegiance to its principles and thereby devoted to ensuring it remains robust and inviolate (propaganda corrupts many who share none of this power to the path). Vapid, tunnel-vision musings of “philosophers” and political commentators – often equally tainted by power – reinforce the sense of moral righteousness that justifies acting like monsters. The myth that the club is there for everyone is spread at every opportunity, while privilege is constantly reinforced in reality. Simple-minded provocateurs are applauded at every turn while inconvenient facts are dismissed and true scholars marginalized or shouted down by ranting ignoramuses. In the safety of the wolf pack, the inner monster is unleashed without restraint.
Some might throw up their hands and excuse evil as an inescapable part of who we are. Yet the notion that we evolved from “killer apes” – that our evolution into big-brained human animals was driven by murderous aggression (the Ardrey hypothesis) – has long been discredited (if indeed it was ever taken seriously). True, most psychologists would probably accept the notion that there is a “dark side” to human nature, from Freud’s id and Jung’s shadow to a behaviorist’s “learned propensity” to react to stimulus-specific conditions with aggressive behavior. Mr. Hyde lurks in the basement – but Dr. Jekyll is not of necessity in thrall to him. Not until his corruption by power.
Unlike Werewolf, who dreaded the transmogrification that would come over him with the full moon, human monsters may have little or no awareness of their affliction. They may believe their actions are necessary evils or even moral imperatives. Often they flout their “courage” in meeting the heavy responsibilities they bear.
Ordinarily, one prefers to focus on actions rather than character, as we all have our shortcomings and some have suffered slings and arrows far beyond the rest of us. But we speak here not of the realm of psychopathology, but of politics and public servants who ought to be judged for their performance in carrying out the duties of their office. An ordinary civilian may lead an upstanding life for decades, but make one mistake and s/he will pay the piper. Succumb to a momentary flush of road rage that results in a carload of dead bodies and Average Joe or Jane will be thought the devil incarnate. Illegitimately bomb a country thousands of miles away and be hailed as one who can make the “tough choices.”
The maddening thing is that these amoral leaders corrupt us too. We believe in them, trust them, become emotionally caught up with them. Once they become hero figures, we excuse anything they do and transform their crimes into virtues. We fall in line with their perverse logic and our corruption is complete. We urge them on, clamor for more.
We are thus complicit in their monstrous actions. What responsibility do we bear for the actions of those we cheer on? If the 2004 election was in some sense a referendum on the war in Iraq, what responsibility do those who voted for George Bush bear? (Given that Kerry ran on a war platform, does it make any difference?) What about those who failed to denounce Clinton after his bombing of that pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan, an action which purportedly resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Sudanese when medicines ran short? True, this weaves an impossibly tangled web from which no one would escape, but it is not mere idle speculation. Julius Streicher, a German newsman, was convicted of war crimes and executed for spreading Nazi propaganda. What then should be the fate of, oh, let’s say, Thomas Friedman, who sold the Iraq war to the public with such passion (as he did the disastrous neoliberal agenda as well)? Of course, taking the question seriously would require that mainstream America and the Elite acknowledge that the war was criminal in the first place, and good luck with that project.
We are a social species and rules for living together have to be in place. The basic starting point of any moral society must be the sanctity of human life (leaving aside the question of animal rights for another discussion). Whether from religious conviction or simply as a plan by which we might all get along, it is clear we must agree that there can be no greater crime than the taking of life (setting aside for the moment the issue of capital punishment). Murder is the most grievous sin “before God and man,” closely followed by the infliction of gross bodily harm.
It follows then that any recourse to death-dealing and infliction of harm can only be permissible as an absolute last resort to an equally dire threat, and furthermore that unshakable proof must be offered that every other avenue has been fully and vigorously pursued before this most drastic solution is considered. It is a simple syllogism, easily understood by all. To fail to adhere to it is to venture into the realm of the monstrous.
Leaders must be accountable. This is why the Nuremberg Tribunals, Geneva Conventions and International Criminal Court were instituted – were they mere shams?
There is voluminous evidence that the “world democratization” project of the United States government has virtually nothing to do with spreading democracy and is rather all about maintaining the flow of wealth to the West through control of the planet’s natural resources and building the strategic alliances necessary to accomplish this; it is clear too that this endeavor has been waged without regard for human rights and human life. Red lines have been crossed, repeatedly and egregiously.
Nothing is more monstrous in human affairs than war, but look what it has become – a political strategy. “What did we gain from our investment of blood and money?” is the critical retrospective question, from Vietnam right up to the present. In planning, we ask what we will get out of an intervention only – not what is best for the people who live there. A jingoistic perspective is the only accepted frame of reference.
We say that “war is hell,” but we don’t believe it. War is a chance for glory and economic and strategic gain. The war-is-hell bit is ornamentation to make the glory more grandiose. The movies animate war with stirring music and gripping stories of handsome soldiers who leave loved ones behind and die in the mud. The government hides the body bags and doesn’t count enemy dead (though in Vietnam casualties on both sides were front-page fixtures; evidently the fact that Vietnamese soldiers were being killed at a rate far above that of Americans was thought to be consoling to the public). Children burn to death as their mothers wail. Wizened and wise elders are blown apart by incoming shells. Young maidens planning their marriage will never wear the lace. Student dreams of going to college, getting a good job and having a decent life go up in smoke, literally. Many will experience unimaginable agony – physical, emotional or both – some for a few final traumatic moments, others for decades of utter misery. Conveniently, those who give the orders are almost always insulated from such horrors.
War as a preferred “go-to” problem-solving tactic is a sanitized monstrosity, Pablum-ized by the corporate media and spoon-fed to the public as a rational course of action. Bright-eyed commentators argue for the necessity and moral rectitude of strategic bombing, as most recently with Syria. Even self-professed “progressives” who acknowledge the horrors we are responsible for in Latin America, Asia and Africa, have said yes, let the destruction rain down, evidently believing that we are sufficiently objective and wise to make such decisions on our own, without consulting the UN, the Organization of American States, the African Union, the Nonaligned Movement or anybody else. Despite the almost irrefutable hypothesis that were Syria situated in any region of the world that lacked strategic importance and/or a crucial natural resource, it would not draw a batted eye from the US government.
That the United States, given its track record, should consider itself on moral ground to initiate aggressive action in the absence of an unpressured international consensus – not just of the major powers, but of the world community – reflects the psychology of a bloodthirsty ghoul, an “insane society” that devalues human life far more than any Mafioso or trigger-happy ghetto rudeboy. Obtaining congressional approval does not weaken this conclusion.
Failure to consult scholars outside the favored political think tanks or heed the words of outstanding pillars of morality strengthens the conclusion.
Pillars of morality like Martin Luther King, who in the Vietnam era accused the United States of being the greatest perpetrator of violence in the world.
Or Archbishop Tutu, who demanded that Bush and Blair be tried as war criminals.
Or Nelson Mandela, who said that if any country had committed “unspeakable atrocities,” it was the United States.
Instead we listen to the likes of Henry Kissinger, who excuses the murder of hundreds of thousands by telling us that US foreign policy is not to be thought of as “missionary work.”
Some fine-tuning might be in order. Is it power that corrupts – or the craving for it? The outstanding Western spokesman for an entire race of individuals – not to mention others who admired and loved him – Martin Luther King, it might be argued, possessed enormous power, yet was incorruptible. Money is power, but Tolstoy gave away his estates. Bob Marley shunned the materialism his sudden wealth offered and sang songs against the system that enabled it. Those whom power corrupts must shoulder blame for their crimes and not shrug them off onto the position of authority they hold.
As in Syria, the United States is ready to act like Hannibal Lecter at a moment’s notice, prettifying its monstrous motives as Ted Bundy might have done.
Like Luke Skywalker clashing light sabers with Darth Vader, decent people have the responsibility to face their shadow personality and not be persuaded to the dark side. In every walk of life, in big matters and small, we can choose the moral action, the alternative that uplifts and nourishes. “Help ever, hurt never” as the inscription at the House of Blues in Los Angeles puts it so eloquently. If enough folks do, a stake can be driven through the cavity where the monster’s heart should be.