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April 29, 2005

The Terrifying Truth: We Are Normal

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen writes about the film Downfall, which examines the last days and hours of Adolf Hitler.

Reflecting on the humanity and the madness of Hitler, Cohen runs into the terrifying truth that a people with the graces and skills of the Germans could, almost without missing a step, follow the barbarity of Hitler, and then becomes good citizens once again.

This reminded me of a chapter in Chuck Colson’s 1985 book Who Speaks for God?, which explores the same horror that if we look deeply into ourselves we can see glimpses of the very worst among us.

Colson writes in the chapter titled, The Terrifying Truth, We Are Normal:

Introducing a recent story about Nazi Adolf Eichmann, a principal architect of the Holocaust, Wallace posed a central question at the program's outset: "How is it possible . . . for a man to act as Eichmann acted? . . . Was he a monster? A madman? Or was he perhaps something even more terrifying: was he normal?"

Normal? The executioner of millions of Jews normal? Most self-respecting viewers would be outraged at the very thought.

The most startling answer to Wallace's shocking question came in an interview with Yehiel Dinur, a concentration camp survivor who testified against Eichmann at the Nuremburg trials. A film clip from Eichmann's 1961 trial showed Dinur walking into the courtroom, stopping short, seeing Eichmann for the first time since the Nazi had sent him to Auschwitz eighteen years earlier. Dinur began to sob uncontrollably, then fainted, collapsing in a heap on the floor as the presiding judicial officer pounded his gavel for order in the crowded courtroom.

Was Dinur overcome by hatred? Fear? Horrid memories?

No; it was none of these. Rather, as Dinur explained to Wallace, all at once he realized Eichmann was not the godlike army officer who had sent so many to their deaths. This Eichmann was an ordinary man. "I was afraid about myself," said Dinur. ". . . I saw that I am capable to do this. I am . . . exactly like he."

Wallace's subsequent summation of Dinur's terrible discovery–"Eichmann is in all of us"–is a horrifying statement; but it indeed captures the central truth about man's nature. For as a result of the Fall, sin is in each of us–not just the susceptibility to sin, but sin itself.

Posted by Jim at April 29, 2005 04:27 PM

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One of the most terrifying thoughts to strike me as a child was just this: That all the horrors of history were perpetrated by human beings who had the gift of speech and the faculty for thought. They weren't a different species. This in turn, made me afraid and caused me to ask myself, "Am I capable of monstrousness?"

The truth, of course, is that I am. That's why the saving grace of God, on which I throw myself daily, is so important. God not only saves us from sin and death, He also saves us from ourselves. Thank God!

Posted by: Mark at April 30, 2005 12:09 AM

Hannah Arendt's "Eichman in Jerusalem--The Banality of Evil" posits a similar thesis: Extraordinary evil perpetrated by almost extraordinarily normal people.

Posted by: Mark Sides at May 1, 2005 11:49 PM

Actually, I think I have the title of the Arendt book mentioned above backwards.

I wonder if, when we start to think that we (as in, our society, our group, our nation) are somehow different than all others that have come before (geneticaly superior, smarter, more knowledgeable, more peaceful, etc.), that is the point at which we are most likely of committing atrocities.

Posted by: Mark Sides at May 2, 2005 12:09 AM

Great movie! 3 Thumbs up!

We could all be lured into the trap. Everyone of us wants to be told they are special, meant for special purpose, and are superior. The lure of any cult. Sadly, even the smartest of the human race are susceptible. I would venture that they are even more so.

By the about those convinced of the rapture ala "Left Behind" series? Somehow this Christian knows the future, that the time is near. He knows that he is unlike other humans and will be whisked away to be with God in a moment. He feels as if he is at a special moment in time, able to see events nobody else in human history has seen. All due to the musings of a British preacher over a century ago. The theology is weak at best. Smells of cult at worst. However, the good thing is, these brothers and sisters have love and are not in sin. Just trying to figure out their place in the universe like all of us.

for me, I'll just "Keep Watch". Test everything. Be like the two disciples that kept fishing for a while as they learned about Jesus. Then they dropped their nets and followed.

That same restraint shown by two fisherman at the sea of galilee is critical to testing the passionately preached theories of the day. It might help you stay away from the next Hitler as well. Sure as the sun rises, such a being will come again. Some say it will be the anti-Christ.

Pick your teachers/mentors/leaders with care. Test everything. Have faith in God first and listen to his spirit. Listen to smart men second. Third and last, test those men by returning to the first step.

Posted by: skibrian at May 9, 2005 11:01 PM