Of Quantity and Quality II: Holocaust, torture and sacrament
[ by Charles Cameron — Yom HaShoah, quality vs quantity, sacramental value of life, continuing from Q&Q I, long, intense ]
Today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
photo credit: Joni B Hannigan
The mind is struck dumb.
Six million individuals is too vast a gathering to contemplate. Even to think of ten people we know well if they are in the room with us requires us to move from face to face, person to person, picking up where we left off with each one, perhaps with this couple or these four colleagues from a remembered journey or project.
Six million people is more than a crowd, it’s a blur — it is, approximately, the entire population of Arizona, of Rio or Lahore, of entire nations, El Salvador, Libya or Sierra Leone.
Today we remember those who died in the Shoah, as individuals and together.
I believe the Shoah to be one of those topics where we humans need to use the cognitive equivalent of a zoom lens – the capacity to hold magnitude in mind while exploring at the level of the individual, and to feel for the individual while not losing sight of the magnitude of the larger picture.
Consider the rabbinic opinion given in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a:
For this reason was man created alone, to teach thee that whosoever destroys a single soul of Israel, scripture imputes [guilt] to him as though he had destroyed a complete world; and whosoever preserves a single soul of Israel, scripture ascribes [merit] to him as though he had preserved a complete world.
How do you magnify that “complete world” by six million?
Another such topic involving the individual and the group is torture.
Here the issue is, at best, not one of innate cruelty or hatred or disregard for values, but a considered weighing of alternatives — the brutal interrogation of a Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, say, against the chance to avoid a second 9/11. Torture, too, is a matter of the relationship of the many to the one, and I suspect people’s opinion of torture pretty much rests on each person’s understanding of when and indeed whether the need of the group ever trumps that of the individual.
Again, I think we need a cognitive zoom capability, if we are to begin to grasp the subtlety of the issue — and to be able to countenance those who see it differently from ourselves.
I suggest that the core question is that of the relationship of quality to quantity — which I have argued before, is essentially the same as the deep question in consciousness, that of the relationship between (subjective) mind and (objective) brain.
Can a sheer quantity of people saved from some hateful end ever really compare to the quality — radiant suchness of the Tathagata (Diamond Sutra), image and likeness of God (Genesis) — of a single willfully tortured human?
For some people this is a no-brainer. Of course: you weigh the likely impacts, and on occasions when torturing one is liable to reveal information that saves thousands of others, do it. Reuel Marc Gerecht, lately of the CIA, posed the issue this way:
… if you had been confronted on 7 September 2001 with a captured Khalid Shaykh Muhammad or Abu Zubaydah and you knew that a major, mass-casualty terrorist strike was about to go down in the United States, and you had plenipotentiary authority for the nation’s security …
For some, it is a no-brainer. Of course not: if you treat others that way, even in the heat of battle, you’ve lost already — you’ve become what you hate. John Kiriakou, lately of the CIA, wrote:
even if torture works, it cannot be tolerated – not in one case or a thousand or a million. If their efficacy becomes the measure of abhorrent acts, all sorts of unspeakable crimes somehow become acceptable. … There are things we should not do, even in the name of national security.
In the Egyptian scene above — taken from the Papyrus of Ani in the British Museum — judgment is rendered on a single human soul when it is weighed against the feather of Maat:
The goddess Maat, shown as a feather in the scale pan, is the deification of the concept of maat: truth, justice and cosmic order.
Is the heart light enough to balance justice herself?
The jackal-headed Anubis is weighing the heart of the supplicant as the ugly beast Ammit, known as “The Devourer,” “Bringer of the Second Death” — a hybrid monster, part lion, part hippopotamus, part crocodile — crouches by the scales drooling, waiting to gulp down the failed soul. The ibis-headed Thoth is poised to record the verdict on his slate. Various deities are ranged around the scene, serving as Judges or in other roles important to the ritual or the ideology that had developed over the span of many centuries. Overlooking this scene is the Ba — the winged representation of the personality of the deceased — perched and ready but not yet able to take flight as a risen being.
Even though Osiris is pictured at the far end of the Judgment scene, indicating the conclusion of the proceedings, his presence nonetheless dominates the scene, as a confirmation of the ultimate purpose of all this.
Mary Qualit and Martha Quant…
A number of significant thinkers have weighed in on the scales which measure human lives… basically asking if a quality can be quantified, added, multiplied.
The philosopher Wittgenstein, in a selection of his posthumous writings, says:
The whole earth cannot be in greater distress than one soul.
The writer CS Lewis concurs:
We must never make the problem of pain worse than it is by vague talk about the “unimaginable sum of human misery.” … There is no such thing as a sum of suffering, for no one suffers it. When we have reached the maximum that a single person can suffer, we have, no doubt, reached something very horrible, but we have reached all the suffering there ever can be in the universe. The addition of a million fellow-sufferers adds no more pain.
And Arne Naess, the “father” of Deep Ecology, in his Philosophy of Wolf Policies says:
We should be careful when talking about greater suffering. Referring to a consciously experienced suffering, including simple pain, we have to do with a quality admitting degrees of intensity, but in an important sense unquantifiable and nonadditive.
Strictly speaking, experienced suffering is not additive.
In my view — or perhaps I should say, with my mind — it is hard even to fully grasp what these three distinguished and diverse folk are saying. And yet I feel as if they are bringing me a truth, bringing it right to the edge of my awareness.
Tarek Mehanna wrote in his sentencing statement, given in court last week:
I learned about the American-led sanctions that prevented food, medicine, and medical equipment from entering Iraq, and how – according to the United Nations – over half a million children perished as a result. I remember a clip from a ’60 Minutes’ interview of Madeline Albright where she expressed her view that these dead children were “worth it.”
I can understand that, the reluctance to accept that particular policies are “worth” the loss of children. Where is Maat, to weigh such matters for us?
Here are four quotations having to do with the value of sparrows, one way or another:
Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows. — Matthew 10.29-31.
Whoever uselessly kills a sparrow, on the Day of Judgment, it will come and shout in front of the throne and say, “Oh my Lord, ask this person why he uselessly killed me.” — Hadith of the Prophet, quoted in Kazemi, Environmental Rights and the Teachings of Mahdism
There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. — Shakespeare, Hamlet, V.2
If a sparrow dies in Central Park, I feel responsible. — Mayor Fiorello La Guardia
There’s a streak of paradox running through the heart of Christianity, in which two values are simultaneously present: one temporal and moral, the other atemporal / eternal and transcendent. Thus Christ can say “Before Abraham was, I am” — situating himself in both eternal and temporal realms simultaneously. Thus also, he can say of himself and his betrayal by Judas, “The Son of man goeth as it is written of him: but woe unto that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! it had been good for that man if he had not been born.”
And thus also, in a masterful paradox, St John’s Gospel recounts how the High Priest Caiaphas argued for the death of Christ:
Then gathered the chief priests and the Pharisees a council, and said, What do we? for this man doeth many miracles. If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation. And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all, Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not. And this spake he not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation; And not for that nation only, but that also he should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad. Then from that day forth they took counsel together for to put him to death.
On the one hand, Caiaphas is arguing that one troublesome young rabbi’s life is expendable if it will avoid a Roman crackdown not unlike the one that did in fact occur some forty years later, with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. This is, in Christian terms, a vile argument, and one respondible for the death by execution of the Christ.
On the other, though — and the brilliance of the paradox lies in the way that John weaves the two perspectives together — God thinks it preferable that he himself, incarnate, should die as a once-for-all sacrifice to save his many creatures who — and here I can’t help but hear the strains of Handel’s Messiah — like sheep have gone astray…
Putting it mildly.
So, whether you’re Christian or not — and I wouldn’t claim to be, though I’m clearly influenced — the notions of sacrifice and self-sacrifice belong in here somehow.
I quoted the Talmudic Tractate Sanhedrin at the top of this post. The Qur’an recalls this passage in Sura 5.32:
Therefore We prescribed for the Children of Israel that whoso slays a soul not to retaliate for a soul slain, nor for corruption done in the land, shall be as if he had slain mankind altogether; and whoso gives life to a soul, shall be as if he had given life to mankind altogether.
It is my suggestion that the difference between Quantity and Quality is as profound (in Bateson’s terms, makes as great a difference as) as the difference between mind and brain, subjective and objective or inner and outer worlds — which itself revovles around the “deep problem” in consciousness.
If I’m right about this — and “right” may not be the best term in any case — then the quality / quantity issue is one facet of the great mystery at the heart of things that religion approaches and derives from, but can never fully define or express.
Morality is our attempt to work in the world with some of the insight gleaned from that mystery, and it may well be that dualistic, propositional thinking is inherently unsuited to the task.
I’d like to return at this point to a quote I’ve used here before, and find very insightful. It’s from Lin Jensen, An Ear to the Ground: Uncovering the living source of Zen ethics, and it tells us:
Judgments on right and wrong are a nearly irresistible enticement to pick sides. And that’s exactly why the old Zen masters warned against becoming a person of right and wrong. It isn’t that the masters were indifferent to questions of ethics, but for them ethical conduct went beyond simply taking the prescribed right side. For these masters, the source of ethical conduct is found in the way things are, circumstance itself: unfiltered immediate reality reveals what is needed.
In closing, I would like to return to the issue of torture, and to offer you another quote, this one from one of the most powerful works of theology known to me, William T Cavanaugh‘s Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics and the Body of Christ:
by making the seeking of important answers seem like the motive for the torture, the torturer seems able to justify his brutality. No one would think of defending the sheer physical act of torture, the merciless inflicting of pain on a helpless victim. However, once we consider the verbal aspect, the question and answer which seem of such great urgency, the moral contours of torture seem less clear, and utilitarian justifications of torture become thinkable, provided the motive for the questions is of sufficient importance.
Cavanaugh is writing about those who were “disappeared” in Pinochet‘s Chile, and his broader argument is that torture is the antithesis of the sacramental nature of human identity — and here we return full circle to the “image and likeness” of the divine in the mortal, the human.
The deeper we can penetrate into the central mystery, it seems to me, the better we will be enabled to love, to understand, and to forgive.
April 20th, 2012 at 1:06 am
Powerful post. Not sure I’d agree with the Jensen quote. My philosophy is a little rusty, but if memory serves, our modern concept of moral relativism (which is how this reads) was shaped by Proust and Freud (and, I confess, I’m many years from both—whom I found tedious, btw—Proust, in particular). Is there a place for timeless principles which are portable through the ages? I believe I know the answer, for I see moral relativism and situational ethics to be a contributing factor to the decay of Western culture.
Big thought, but first thing that came to mind when I read this extraordinary post.
April 20th, 2012 at 2:25 am
As an aside, there is a little book written by J.M. Powis Smith (in the 30’s) called The Origins and History of the Hebrew Law—-he compares Mosaic law (from which most Western law descends) to the Code of Hammurabi. There was one quote that jumped off the page:
It is the balance, the harmony, if you will, that determines longevity?
April 22nd, 2012 at 2:53 pm
“The mind is struck dumb.”
Yes. Impossible to comprehend.
April 22nd, 2012 at 2:59 pm
I want to be John Kiriakou, but I know I would be Reuel Marc Gerecht.
Meaning: The reason people use the “ticking time bomb” scenario for discussion, I think, is that it highlights that a moral society, and the rule of law, understand the exceptional and will sometimes allow for it, however terrible.
So, where is the line between that which should be understood as an exception and that which we codify with our laws? I don’t have the answers. And this aspect of your post absolutely fits in with the following at SWJ:
Order/disorder, risk/non-risk. How do we think about it?
I wanted to add something to my first comment and didn’t. It was this: as a high school student, I believe, I watched a film in school about the Holocaust and I vaguely–and very imperfectly–remember seeing a scene in which babies were sorted through, “as if they were cabbages, not human beings.” I remember the image, I remember the shock, I remember the very phrase that came to mind, but I can’t remember the exact incident it referred to. It has always stayed with me, that image. I cannot forget it.