January 27, 2022
A radio interview with scientist Robert Sapolsky shocked me. My humanist book group was currently discussing his tome on human behavior. Sapolsky spoke of his fantasy of killing someone. Not just killing — but with torture, described in graphic detail.
The “someone” was Hitler.
Sapolsky’s fantasy might seem innocuous because of course Hitler is already dead. But if this were 1944?
Capital punishment opponents deem killing always morally unacceptable, no matter how bad the person. Yet I believe some people deserve the ultimate punishment, as a matter of justice.
So with Sapolsky: fantasizing himself an avatar of justice. However, torture adds a problematic dimension; it must entail mindful cruelty by the torturer, a corruption of their soul, and of the moral legitimacy of whatever authority sanctions it.
There used to be a widespread fetish in academia denouncing “judgmentalism,” with categorical judgments considered always suspect. Of course that’s turned completely around, now academia embraces judgmentalism with a vengeance, punishing viewpoints not in lockstep with the catechism of the day. But without going to such extremes, the former anti-judgmentalism was surely wrong. Humans are built to be judgment machines; life is all about making judgments. We are also programmed to be justice seekers. Thus Sapolsky vis-a-vis Hitler.
My own judgment app is set on “high.” A lifetime of hard thinking about issues confronting us makes me feel, at this point, pretty strong in what I judge good or bad, right or wrong.
Certain personages are on the wrong side of that judgment, earning the sort of hatred Sapolsky evinced toward Hitler. This is not hate as a baseless prejudice (as with, for example, white racial hatred). To the contrary, its salient characteristic is being justified by sound rational considerations. Thus I hate Putin; Assad; Maduro; Lukashenko; Ortega; Erdogan; Kim Jong Un; Xi Jinping; Min Aung Hlaing; alas the list goes on, it’s far too long. I hate them for the evil each has perpetrated.
There’s one person I hate more than anyone, ever. (You knew where this was going.) A hatred burning with a pure incandescent flame. Yet this too is no irrational prejudice, but its exact opposite. A deeply considered moral judgment grounded in facts. The crimes are not in the Hitler-Stalin-Mao class; however, unlike the other mentioned cases, this one for me is personal. Because it concerns my own country, which I have profoundly loved for what it represented and stood for. Which this evil monster has damaged beyond calculating. Maybe wrecked forever.
So do I fantasize like Sapolsky? Or would I actually do the deed if I had some opportunity? In fact, no. It would be self-immolation. He’s already caused me so much suffering — heartache, anxiety, literal lost sleep. He can destroy my country, but I would not let him destroy my life itself. And assassination would make him a martyr in many eyes, throwing gasoline on America’s political dumpster fire.
However, I do harbor a fantasy, every morning, when I retrieve our newspaper and open it. A fantasy of a big black headline. It might not be justice; after all, everybody dies. And even if it’s from natural causes, conspiracy theories would run wild, and millions of his cultists would expect him, Christlike, to return. But he could do no more harm. And maybe, just maybe, most of America could recover its sanity.