Moral monsters, viewed from afar

February 9, 2005

What must the good person do in the face of monstrous but distant evil?  What can be done?  I’m reading Richard Overy’s book about Hitler and Stalin, The Dictators, and I just ran across this review of a new biography of Pol Pot by Philip Short, a British journalist, which I doubt I’ll have the stomach to read.  On the cheerless subject of totalitarian butchery, I have two thoughts.  One is that from the inside, to the victims, it appears like an irresistible judgment:  like destiny.  Two is that from the outside, we watch it happen, then we ask ourselves how we could have allowed it to happen, and we say, “Never again.”  Here is the reviewer’s version of this second refrain:

From 1975, when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge rebels emptied Cambodia’s capital of its residents and declared the nation’s history at “Year Zero,” until he himself fled before invading Vietnamese troops in 1979, the outside world knew little of what horrors he had wrought on the nation’s estimated 7 million residents. The global silence over what was happening was similar to that during the Jewish holocaust.

In fact, anyone at the time who cared to know could learn that Cambodia was being disemboweled – after all, where had all the people in the cities gone?  And the Jews disappearing from Germany during the Holocaust were surely noticed.  And today millions of North Koreans either are dead or on the edge of death; we know that.  Some day soon, the North Korean regime will implode, and the horrors of that suffering people will become common knowledge – and we will ask ourselves how we could have allowed it to happen, and why there was such shameful silence.

But what can be done?  It seems to me worse than futile to pretend that public opinion or international busybodies can have an effect on viciousness of such magnitude.  The nations of the world, John Locke observed, are in a state of nature with regard to one another.  Even if we convicted Kim Chung Il at the International Criminal Court, what would change?  The only law is force, and few are willing to apply it on behalf of strangers; that may sound cold, but it is, all in all, a reasonable standard of behavior.  As we have found in Iraq, the line between liberation and occupation can be faint and uncertain.

We can speak out, bear witness, but that can descend to posturing, and even when sincere won’t help the victims.  I have vacationed in Miami every year for many years.  The Cubans there are prosperous, successful, and well-educated, but the older generation is fixated on the evil they left behind long ago.  They want to talk about Fidel Castro.  They desperately want to persuade anyone willing to listen that he has squeezed the life and soul out of a people for over 40 years.  They talk long and they talk loud, and they are, in every detail, absolutely right.  Yet I hear that talk less and less every year.  The old folks are dying off, and the younger generation is more worried about suburban sprawl.

We can offer refuge to those who escape, whether from Cuba or North Korea.  That’s a noble American tradition.  We must keep our moral bearings and call evil by its proper name, even when we can’t overthrow it.  Mostly I think we must lead our lives in a manner that brings luster to the condition of freedom, and atones in some small way for those who suffer from its lack.