It is the autumn of 2015 and I am packed into the backseat of a tiny Peugeot with four friends, driving from Maastricht to a small Belgian city called Ghent. The landscape speeds by, a string of farm fields and tiny towns.
In Ghent, we wander through cobblestone plazas full of tiny shops, and plan to see the famous painting “Het Lam Gods”—or “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” painted in 1432 by the brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck—currently on display in Sint-Baafskathedraal.
When the cathedral opens in the morning, we cram alongside thirty or so other people into the small side chapel where the painting is housed. Many of them stop by the counter to rent audio-tour handsets, and soon the buzz of digital voices begins to rise and swell around me, indecipherable, unstopping.
I stare up at “Het Lam Gods.” In the top right panel of the painting, depicted in colors so subtle they almost appear black and white, stands Eve. Her posture is in contrast to Adam, who clutches a fig leaf over his genitals and one arm across his chest, and whose downturned face conveys—fear? horror? remorse? Far across the painting, Eve stands indifferently, one hand holding aloft a small fruit, the other carelessly grasping a fig leaf which does not quite cover her groin, though the drape of her arm shadows it.
Her depiction here is starkly dissimilar to the wailing, bemoaning grief she is shown with in so many other paintings from around that time. Her face is close to sullen, as she stares downward toward the distance. One feels as if her thoughts are elsewhere, and that she is anything but remorseful.
“They had to fall down so that all that saving could happen,” one friend exclaims loudly, boisterously, as we walk down the street after leaving the cathedral.
I wonder quietly to myself, if that is true, at the defiance I saw on Eve’s angled face.
In the Jewish tradition, I read later, the eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was the moment good and evil became mixed together. Prior to that, evil did exist but was outside of the human psyche. In Kabbalist Judaism, evil feeds on the trapped sparks of holiness in the world, and the two must be separated in order to cut off evil’s life source and make it disappear.
I’ve never connected with the language of good and evil, found them too dichotomous, too pure, when we are all everything, the capacity for everything.
But lately I have been thinking about this concept of evil, about the human impulse to hurt and damage others. Have been imagining that evil, if we are to use that word at all, is for the most part not some kind of cold logic harbored by a malevolent individual, but rather the leering angry twist of fear and ignorance into violence. Is more like the incoherent bloodthirst and rage of an angry crowd; the uncontrollable trajectory of energy and fear; more like the vicious mobbing of a vulnerable body, a vulnerable life. It is part of the human passion, and we seem no more able to control or override it now than we were millennia ago.
Back home in Maastricht, the winds are tempestuous. Reading Bulgakov’s The White Guard aloud to each other in the evening, curled on the couch with a blanket tucked around our feet, my wife Anna said, “It’s different in Russian—the word blizzard isn’t just weather-channel speak for heavy snow, it has an element of catastrophe in it, of isolation and wolves and starvation.”
In the morning the autumn wind still surges with unstoppable ferocity across the landscape. The pods on the trees move like long fingers searching the air. A thick, hairy fly clings to the window and I shudder.
I am listening to a TED talk by Hubertus Knabe and he is talking about the Stasi, the secret police of East Germany whose modus operandi was to quietly, darkly destroy someone’s life from the inside, so that they thought they were crazy, or a failure, so that they felt alone and abandoned by everyone they trusted.
Knabe says the Stasi even kept “data” of people’s scents. They collected these scents in bottles.
After the wall came down civilians found rooms full of bottles, lines and lines of glass, each one holding the scent of a human being.
I remember experiencing the dawning awareness that what is most difficult in times of tyranny—and also, one imagines, in moments of disaster or war—is the darkness, the rumors, the mistrust of any news one is receiving, the lack of any clear or reliable information. We are so accustomed, in these times, to having vast information available to us in just a few clicks. But these systems can break down, and do break down in moments of upheaval and catastrophe.
One psychologist outlines four conditions for the generation and transmission of rumors: personal anxiety, general uncertainty, importance of the topic at hand, and—least important in times of heightened threat—credulity. In the absence of clear and reliable information, rumor spreads like fire.
The poet Marie Howe recalls in an interview,
One of my teachers at Columbia was Joseph Brodsky, who’s a Russian poet, a wonderful, amazing poet, who was exiled from the Soviet Union. And he said, “You Americans, you are so naïve. You think evil is going to come into your houses wearing big black boots. It doesn’t come like that. Look at the language. It begins in the language.”
In another recounting, a Bosnian Serb woman named Seka Milanovik remembers the way the war began in Bosnia, in the early 1990s:
The war began with words, but none of us paid any attention. The extremist Serbs and Muslims were misfits, criminals and failures. But soon they held rallies and talked of racial purity, things like that. We dismissed them—until the violence began.
I share this with a friend and she writes back: accounts from Rwanda just before the genocide are like this, too, the way it crept up in the language.
Shortly after this exchange, lying in bed in the morning, fuzzy-brained and trying to drag myself out of deep slumber, I read an article in The Guardian about the current atmosphere in Hungary under Orbán: filled with hatred and fear-mongering. There is a popular website where viewers try to discern whether quotes featured are from present-day Hungary or from Radio Rwanda on the eve of the genocide—Hungarian examples include language like “filthy rats” and “inevitable bloodshed,” making it difficult to tell the two apart.
For many years now, I have been obsessed with this question: how do we know? How do we know it’s coming, identify it earlier, before the violence starts—before it’s rolling inexorably forward?
In War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges describes the way language was used—manipulated—to create difference between Serbs, Bosnians, and Croats in the leadup to the Bosnian war:
Since there was, in essence, one shared language, [each group] began to distort their own tongue to accommodate the myth of separateness. The Bosnian Muslims introduced Arabic words and Koranic expressions into the language. The Muslims during the war adopted words like shahid, or martyr, from Arabic, dropping the Serbian word junak…[and] the Croats swung the other way, dusting off words from the fifteenth century.
Leaders in that conflict understood the power of language to creep in around the edges. “The nationalist myths stand on such miniscule differences,” Hedges continues. “These myths give neighbors the justification to kill those they had gone to school and grown up with.”
And so, perhaps, a second question I have been carrying around: even if it was possible to know, to see the tipping point, how could enough people be persuaded to act before things moved beyond just language?
A WordPress site dedicated to the Bosnian genocide hosts article after article, photo after photo of the exhumation of mass graves, of cemeteries, of people grieving.
One article describes current efforts to keep memories of that genocide alive:
Bosniak human rights activists, led by Ms Bakira Hasečić, prevented the nationalist Serb authorities from demolishing a memorial house in which Serb soldiers set on fire sixty-five Bosniak civilians in a 1992 assault on Visegrad.
In 1992, Ms Bakira Hasečić and her two daughters, aged 13 and 18, were repeatedly gang raped by Serb soldiers. Ms. Hasečić’s sister’s home was turned into a rape camp by the Serb forces, and she died there after repeated sexual assaults.
If you scroll farther, just below the article is a photo of a white medical-gloved hand scraping soil away from several human fingers, emerging ghoulishly from the reddish dirt.
In The Winter Sun, Fanny Howe writes: “One of the identifiable factors of a massacre is that the victims can’t believe what is happening to them, since they have nothing to do with the idea behind it.”
“They are not soldiers but civilians in the middle of their hopes.”
The mist hangs like a skin over the land this morning, taking away the substance and leaving only a suggestion of the world. Out walking along the edge of the horse pasture, the grass wets my jeans, and spider webs adorn the fence-line, coated in tiny silver pools.
When everything is silent and one is left only with the tide of one’s own breathing, it is impossible not to ask why’s of the world.
Scientists know the universe is expanding, rather than holding still or contracting, because all the light that comes to us is skewed toward the red end of the spectrum. Anna, who teaches physics, explains this to me in terms of concentric ripples: if whatever created those concentric circles moves in a direction, its next touchdown will be closer to one side of the circles, more distant from the other side—making the wavelengths between two “ripples” shorter on one side, longer on the other. In sound, we hear this difference in wavelengths as different pitches (think of the way ambulances sound distinctly different when approaching you than when moving away). In light, we see it as different colors. Red is our perception of longer wavelengths, thus the implication that everything in the universe is moving slowly away from us.
Jeanne Theoharis is a professor from Brooklyn College whose student endured three years of pre-trial solitary confinement on charges of “conspiracy to provide material support to terrorism,” after allowing an acquaintance he didn’t know well to stay at his apartment. Of that experience, she writes,
To one who teaches about civil rights…it is humbling to see those rights shredded a few miles from my classroom. Among the hardest things to teach as a historian are the outsized fears, political motivations, and economic interests that rendered good people silent in the face of government repression, civil-rights violations, internment, and redbaiting.
Courage is costly.
In a recent conversation, Anna commented, “If in Russia you said to someone, I’m a good person, they would just laugh at you. There is not this idea that some people are good, but rather that all of us are flawed.”
I think about expanding this idea of good and bad beyond people, to the larger systems or institutions we may have faith in, the beliefs we may hold sacred.
Our tendency to believe in dualities—to think that some systems are good and others are bad—can make us unable to tolerate critiques of what we hold up as essentially good, or blind us to its flaws. Such binary thinking can lead to inaction: something is either good or it’s bad, inherently, irreparably.
Christian ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr famously cautioned that the difficult choice we make as adults in a complex world is not between the moral and the immoral, but between the immoral and the less immoral.
In practical terms, the choice to do nothing often looks like choosing normalcy over total uncertainty. Little wonder it takes so much to get us to a place of meaningful protest. When we are comfortable, to risk losing it all seems unthinkable.
Of course, sometimes it is simply going to change anyway, though I refer here to the sort of drastic change Westerners have not had to face, not really, since WWII. When dying regimes collapse, they do so with dizzying speed, writes Hedges.
The ground rejects the roots pushing into it and the hips of the sky splay above.
One of my former students writes me a letter. He has just returned to Singapore to do his compulsory military service.
I wanted to give you a quick update on how the army is going. I just returned home after a 7-day field camp out in the ‘wilderness’ here in Singapore—vaguely reminiscent of backpacking, but with the added weight of an assault rifle strapped to my chest.
Instead of cozy sleeping bags, we slept in ‘shellscrapes’ that we dug ourselves—which bore striking resemblance to excavated graves. No sleeping bag, no groundsheet, just full-on skin-to-dirt contact. Our daylight hours were spent performing training exercises: fire movement maneuvers through the jungle, rifle PT, live firing, learning field signs and various air-strike & artillery drills.
I find it difficult to reconcile with the fact that I am being trained to kill another human being. Whilst a certain satisfaction can be derived from watching 700 ball bearings explode out of a grenade at breakneck speed, or the feeling of squeezing a trigger and feeling the kickback of recoil as a round exits your barrel, I definitely don’t have it in me to place another living, breathing human at the receiving end of the above. This is something I will never be able to come to terms with.
I hope things are going well for you & Anna in the Netherlands, and would love to hear an update on life there.
I think of him, and of so many of my other students who have returned home to compulsory military service in their countries.
How many of them will see war in their lives? How many will see political violence, tyranny, despotism—or be asked to act as agents of persecution?
The wind moans outside the windows. Looking at the pastoral landscape outside, softly furred with green, the memory of war seems inconceivable. Only the grey sky hangs heavy, and has seen all the actions we cannot conceive of. Or prefer to think ourselves incapable of.
“That mass killings and genocides recur on earth does not mean that they are similar,” Annie Dillard writes. “Each instance of human, moral evil, and each victim’s personal death, possesses its unique history and form.”
After the Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century, the bones of the dead were brought from battlefields all over Europe, to the port of Hull, and ground to powder to fertilize farmers’ fields. Only the dead have seen the end of war, writes Plato.
Searching to understand more about the onset of tyranny, I read an account by war journalist Peter Maass describing Radovan Karadžić, who was Bosnian Serb president during the Bosnian War in the early 90’s, and was later convicted of war crimes including genocide.
Maass writes, “Tyrants don’t care if you believe them, they just want you to succumb to doubt. I knew Bosnia well, and I knew that the things Karadžić said were lies, and that these lies were being broadcast worldwide.” It’s not that people believed his lies, exactly, Maas explains, but nonetheless they muddied the truth, “causing outsiders to stay on the sidelines, and this of course was a great triumph for Karadžić.”
He didn’t need to make outsiders believe his version of events; he just needed to make them doubt the truth and sit on their hands.”
This move is not unique to Karadžić. As a 2017 article in The Atlantic notes, for the most part contemporary strongmen politicians need not resort to actual violence and repression, but “seek merely to discredit journalism as an institution,” to persuade us that there is no real truth. They know that spreading cynicism is even more effective than spreading lies.
Maass was one of the few American journalists who was able to speak with Slobodan Milošević during his era of power amidst the collapse of Yugoslavia. Of his 90-minute meeting in Milošević’s office, he recalls,
It was as though I pointed to a black wall and asked Milošević what color it was. White, he says. No, I reply, look at it, that wall there, it is black, it is five feet away from us. He looks at it, then at me, and says, The wall is white, my friend, maybe you should have your eyes checked. He does not shout in anger. He sounds concerned for my eyesight. I knew the wall was black. I could see the wall. I had touched the wall. I had watched the workmen paint it black.
On a meditation retreat shortly before we moved to the Netherlands, I dreamed of an empty building painted white, whose floors and walls were awash with blood. A flood of red, splashing up the sides, staining the white plaster. Each room we walked into, more blood. In my dream I didn’t know why the blood was there, but that much blood outside of a body always connotes profound horror.
Not long after our arrival in the Netherlands, I went to see an exhibit of photos by a French photographer, Alain Laboile.
Walking amongst Laboile’s photographs, in an exhibit called La Famille, what one takes away is a sense of things being perpetually in motion. A toddler dribbles milk from a bottle onto the back of a fleeing cat; two children leap from a downed tree; a kitten launches itself from a cupboard onto an unexpecting child below.
The father of six children, Laboile’s photos capture the moving-picture show of their seemingly wild, magical, dirty, almost-feral childhood in the fields, ponds, forests, and old farmhouses of Bordeaux. The children are mostly naked, even as they break the skin of ice on winter puddles with their rubber boots. Naked balancing on a chair to reach into the tall refrigerator. Naked swinging on the curtains. There is a sense that anything goes in this household, so long as it makes a strong image.
Here, a girl holds up a trowel with a dead mole. A four-year-old stands in front of a table with a rooster’s disembodied head in a metal cup. Two young girls crouch as though for dear life on an old white door as it slowly sinks below the clear surface of the lake. It is a world full of mud, sand, murky ponds; the farmhouse kitchen is dirty, the house walls are drawn on. One can almost feel the constant movement, play, disaster; the live curiosity of it all.
Walking through the exhibit, these black and white photos full of life and innocence remind me of another collection of black & white images I’d looked at recently, wholly opposite in the reality they portray—photos from a time of repression and genocide in Cambodia.
The Cambodian photographs—images of men, women, and children—came from the years the repressive Khmer Rouge regime ruled the country: an era of genocide in which almost 25% of Cambodia’s population was killed.
They are individual portraits—mostly all of the upper torso and face, though taken from many different angles and distances—of prisoners at Tuol Sleng, a former high school used by the Khmer Rouge as a secret prison in which “at least 14,000 people were tortured to death or sent to killing fields between 1975-79.”
Most of the photos are captioned “unidentified prisoner.” Some portray young children. A few of the photos are captioned “post-mortem.” The majority were taken just before the execution of each individual.
A New York Times article about Nhem En, the chief of six photographers at the prison, describes him removing the blindfolds of prisoners as they were brought into Tuol Sleng.
“I’m just a photographer; I don’t know anything,” he said he told the newly arrived prisoners, as he adjusted the angles of their heads. But he knew, as they did not, that every one of them would be killed.
The caption to one photograph reads, “Before killing the prisoners, the Khmer Rouge photographed, tortured and extracted written confessions from their victims.” Like the Stasi collecting scents, more than 6,000 of these photographs were left behind when the Khmer Rouge fled the Vietnamese Army.
The photograph I stay with longest shows, in gray tones, the unsmiling face of a little girl, angle slightly off-kilter, with a mary-jane collar, her bobbed hair tucked behind her ears.
She could have been in one of the Laboile photos, drawing at a table or running through a field in rubber boots. Could have been standing nearby as a small child climbs into a paint can, and another girl releases a stream of urine into the grass. She could have been that innocent and that safe.
Those who argue for the existence of evil—that humans are all cruel or savage, selfish, all tipped so easily into the brutality of our underlying nature—often invoke the Stanford prison experiment as evidence.
Of that experiment, Dr. James Doty—a neurosurgeon on the faculty of Stanford Medical School—says, “What it showed was how context and circumstance can actually turn us into . . . a brutal human being, or somebody who has no power. And so this veneer that we have, of being civil, having it together and being strong, can immediately go away.”
There are also many experiments showing that people who meditate, or who practice gratitude or altruism, exhibit significant physiological, neurological, and behavioral changes.
I interpret these divergent, seemingly-opposite experiments to show that, in fact, we are far more influenced by the conditions around us than we like to think. What is certain is that our brains are far more plastic than anyone in previous decades believed.
As Doty points out, behavior is contagious.
The science shows that “when we see another person act with compassion, with kindness, we are immensely more likely to act with those [values] ourselves,” he says. “But the flip side is also true: whoever has read about massacres or about genocides knows that violence is also contagious.” We all carry the power of this contagion.
I am in the living room, stretching on a yoga mat as I listen to him say this, afternoon light spilling in from the tall windows. The dog comes over and nuzzles me impatiently for attention, pushing me off balance.
Doty describes our brain plasticity using the metaphor of physical exercise: meditation on compassion a way of growing your muscles for more generosity and altruism.
“Or,” he says, “you can do a form of exercise that makes you afraid, that makes you pull away, that makes you think that others are your enemies.” Sometimes this is an active choice, but often we don’t even realize what we are doing.
The brain will always choose what is familiar over what is unfamiliar. Our daily patterns of thought and feeling—they become the familiar landscape, the default, the go-to in moments of stress or adversity. Seen this way, ‘good’ and ‘evil’ become a matter of daily practice, as well as of circumstance and surrounding.
“We’re seeing this,” he finishes, “playing out right now in the political arena. We’re seeing it playing out in different parts of the world. And my own belief is that it is an understanding of this reality that is ultimately going to define whether our species survives or not.”
Outside, some boys are trimming the garden, hacking branches off the overgrown trees.
The novelist Marguerite Duras, who as a member of the French resistance during World War II took part in the torture of collaborators, wrote about the ending of war. “Peace is visible already,” she wrote. “It’s like a great darkness falling, it’s the beginning of forgetting.”
Each generation again responds to war as innocents. Each generation discovers its own disillusionment—often after a terrible price, writes Hedges.
Late autumn now, Anna and I go for runs on dirt paths amid the corn, its stalks reddened and beginning to bend. Up on the hill, orchards full of ripened apples, woods-lined and open to the sun. It is not clear how one remains a human for all of a life, or even if one does.
During the Vietnam War era, revered and well-loved Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh visited the U.S. after fleeing his war-torn homeland. What he found, he later recounted, was that the American anti-war protest movement was full of war. Full of anger, fury, hatred, and bitterness.
Anything we hold sacred can become distorted. Twisted by these human tendencies toward cruelty.
It seems, most of the time, we do not get to know that it’s coming. We operate, simply, as civilians in the midst of our hopes. And that the most we can do in advance is to build our muscles for good instead of for “evil,” for altruism instead of for fear.
The French author Jacques Lusseyran, who was blind and used a Braille typewriter, recounted his experience in the concentration camp at Buchenwald. He wrote that what you had to do to survive in the camp was to “be engaged, not live for yourself alone.”
Never mind how: by prayer if you know how to pray; through another man’s warmth which communicates with yours; or simply by no longer being greedy.
By no longer being greedy. It strikes me that generous means not only giving things away, but a softening of the eyes: a willingness to see kindly. That this extends to everything in the world around us.
Lusseyran offers three truths from his time in the camp and as a war resister:
The first of these is that joy does not come from outside for whatever happens to us it is within. The second truth is that light does not come to us from without. Light is in us, even if we have no eyes.
The third is connection: “If you can form close human attachments to those around you, you have the possibility of surviving as a human being,” in one paraphrasing of Lusseyran’s words.
I hear on the news that Maria Ohilebo makes breakfast for immigrants in Greece. She came to Greece more than 20 years ago, as a migrant from Nigeria.
Asked why she and others—living in a country struggling under austerity—spend so much of their small salaries buying food to feed this new wave of refugees from Afghanistan and Syria, she says, “Yes, the time is so bad, but it is when the time is so bad and you can give from what you have, that is when you actually give.”
In another interview I listen to, actor and activist Martin Sheen says, “Every time we try to identify God, we are sure to identify what she is certainly not. We don’t know what God is. And the genius of God—to dwell where we would least likely look, within the depths of our own being, our own shallowness, our own darkness, our own humanity—that’s the genius of God.”
The language of god, like the language of good and evil, has never resonated for me. But the way the Christian mystics and the Jewish Kabbalists imagine god, or what is holy—as sparks of divine illumination, as what is ablaze within us—carries a poetry that is incandescent.
And the idea that all of it—our darkness and our light—is holy, is the material we have to work with in this life, feels more real to the mess and imperfection, the violence and the joy we find all around us. There is a Buddhist teaching that states, “My actions are my only true belongings.”
As I roll across the large, arcing bridge over the Maas river, these words echo in my head. As I buy bread in the old Bisshopsmolen bakery by the Jeker canal. As I pedal home on the paths through the fields. My actions are my only true belongings.
Arianne Zwartjes teaches for Sierra Nevada College’s low-residency MFA program. In her other life she has worked as a wilderness-medicine instructor, an EMT, and a carpenter. She is the author of the lyric nonfiction, medical-humanities book Detailing Trauma: A Poetic Anatomy. Her writing won the 2011 Gulf Coast Nonfiction Prize, was a Best American Essays Notable Essay, and has appeared in Tarpaulin Sky, Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a manuscript of autopolitical nonfiction, mixing personal narrative with thinking and research on constructions of identity, race, power, migration, and violence. Visit her and her writing at ariannezwartjes.com.