Students of the history of the Second World War know that Nazi leader of the SS, Heinrich Himmler was one of the chief architects of the Holocaust. Party insiders knew that Himmler didn’t have much of a stomach for unpleasant sights.
One time, Himmler paid a rare visit to active conflict on the Russian front. When he personally saw the massacre of a large group of prisoners, Himmler almost fainted. In that the incident was a minor one compared to most SS atrocities, it demonstrated that Himmler possessed a small amount of empathy. If he could barely stand to watch the relatively small war crime, how could Himmler continue to oversee the mass murders of the death camps?
Did Himmler justify evil by using the excuse, “I was just following orders”? Did he actually think he was performing a great public service? Himmler surrounded himself with sycophants. The men he commanded didn’t challenge Himmler, so there was a sort of feedback loop where orders to commit vile acts were obeyed, and evil became routine.
The fact is, that Himmler, himself, was a sycophant of Adolf Hitler. Everyone in the chain of command, from Hitler on down to each individual SS trooper, had somehow justified evil. A troubling conclusion from this chapter of history presents itself: we people can convince ourselves of nearly anything.
Certainly the Nazi crimes against humanity were the most extreme example of the justification of evil by a nation and probably many of its citizens. There remain constant instances of the commission of evil activities and their justifications. There are groups of terrorists and individuals who terrorize through torture and murder. We have governments that bomb towns and cities. The officials call the dead or wounded children and families “collatoral damage”.
Society justifies murder, theft, censorship, and oppression by using ideas. These high crimes are justified as a means towards some allegedly noble result. We come to believe that the elimination or harming of a particular group of people is justified because the “end result” will mean some sort of grand benefit to humanity, and in turn, salvation of our own souls.
We have ages old institutions that enable the harming and killing of people by providing “just” reasons for doing so. We salve our consciences by convincing ourselves the learned experts and authorities must be right. People can use any method possible as a means of achieving the result they have come to believe is the best thing for mankind. The implication being that a wrong produces a right. You might say that people believe the wrong action brings about the right political or theological outcome.
Perhaps justifying bad behavior is part of being a human but is just a matter of scale. It might be helpful to examine our own individual behavior and excuses we tell ourselves.
Think of the times we sip coffee or nibble snacks while driving our motor vehicles down the streets and highways. This seems like such a minor, inconsequencial activity, barely worth mentioning. All that is necessary for something major and of great consequence to happen is a single, distracted moment. Placing the cup into the cupholder, or having a morsel drop onto your lap could lead to a traffic accident that causes property damage, personal injury, or maybe even a fatality.
Would we blame ourselves for violating our state’s “distracted driving” statute? Would we pass the buck by pointing out that manufacturers provide cupholders for the convenience of drivers? Do we reason that energy bars sometimes break into pieces and fall onto laps? Do we tell ourselves, “everybody does it”? How do we justify the distracted driving to the victim and her family?
Maybe we follow the letter of traffic law perfectly. There are other evils we might have done in the past. Have we participated in passing gossip? Did we ever tell a little white lie? Have we ever taken something from someone else without their permission? Do we look the other way when we witness abuse or other wrongdoing? Surely we have done one or more of these “minor” evils and constructed an alibi to justify our actions. When we remember what we were thinking at the time, we understand the mindset of people like Heinrich Himmler.
Yet we do know that there are some people who consciously set out to do horrible things on purpose. People with narcissistic personality disorders justify their evil by claiming that if they do it, it’s not wrong because of who they are. There are also people who exhibit signs of “antisocial personality disorder”, or psychopathy. The dictionary definition is, “a personality disorder characterized by deceitfulness, manipulation, grandiosity, lack of empathy and often agressive or violent behavior.” I won’t comment on this further because it is a subject for mental healthcare professionals.
Aside from extreme examples, everyone who has a conscience has done some act that, in hindsight, wish they had not done. All of us are the authors of our own life story. What did we think that allowed us to believe the wrong things we have done seemed like wonderful ideas at the time? The question we need to ask ourselves is, “Will we continue to justify the evil we see or do?”