The Breakfast Table

The Varieties of Mass Murder

Dear James,

I didn’t know it was Hitler’s birthday either. Nor do I feel compelled to walk over to the vast library I can see through my window to check. But you are right to note the quote: Here we’ve spent all of this e-mail time talking about the presence of the Holocaust in American pop culture, meanwhile forgetting that the presence of the Nazis is, in some quarters, just as strong. Hitler really understood how to use props to glamorize violence–slick uniforms, black leather, stark swastikas–in a way that almost no one has matched before or since. Despite the absurd claims of Daniel Goldhagen, it isn’t only Germans who are capable of falling under the spell.

I don’t know about you, but I had a bizarre set of reactions when I picked up the newspapers this morning. First I had that sick feeling that I always have when I read, nowadays, about the deaths of children: What if it happened to my child. Then I thought: Why does this affect me more than the deaths of adult men in Kosovo affect me? That was followed by musings on how much more upsetting violence is when it occurs in familiar places such as school lunchrooms and libraries.

Then I thought: No wonder the world doesn’t see America as the ideal society we often believe it to be; no wonder much of the world raises its collective eyebrows when we speak of “spreading democracy.” There is violence in Serbia, and violence here, too; it just takes different forms.

Then I thought: Isn’t that the worst sort of moral equivalence? A few sick schoolboys is not at all the same thing as organized, state-sponsored violence directed at a specific ethnic group.

Finally, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of shame. There I was, analyzing and rationalizing an event that is, for a handful of families in Colorado, the worst tragedy that will ever happen to them. And then the sick feeling returned: What if it happened to my child?

On the subject of events that are difficult to understand, I note that there are deeply conflicting views in the papers this morning about how the military effort is going in Yugoslavia. On the one hand, we appear to be picking off the headquarters of the Serbian media, along with oil refineries and the headquarters of Serbian political parties. On the other hand, “analysts say” the Serbs can keep fighting for months. Whom do you believe?