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Our Monsters

(Reprinted from SOBRAN’S, December 1994, page 10)

In 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 monsterpsychotic, for example. But the language of psychology merely supplies us with technical-sounding words for the same thing: the shocking absence of ordinary human feeling.

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 justice.

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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Copyright © 1994, 1999 by the Vere Company
Originally published by the Universal Press Syndicate, copyright © 1994