–by Thomas Merton (Mar 29, 2013)
One of the most disturbing facts that came out in the Otto Adolf Eichmann trial –a Nazi lieutenant colonel who, because of his organizational talents and ideological reliability, was given the task of facilitating and managing the logistics of mass deportation of Jews to ghettos and extermination camps in German-occupied Eastern Europe, and later faced trial on 15 criminal charges, including crimes against humanity and war crimes– was that a psychiatrist examined him, in the 1960’s, and pronounced him perfectly sane. I do not doubt it at all, and that is precisely why I find it disturbing.
If all the Nazis had been psychotics their appalling cruelty would have been in some sense easier to understand. It is much worse to consider this calm, “well-balanced,” unperturbed official conscientiously going about his desk work, his administrative job which happened to be the supervision of mass murder. He was thoughtful, orderly, unimaginative. He had a profound respect for system, for law and order. He was obedient, loyal, a faithful officer of a great state. He served his government very well. He was not bothered much by guilt. I have not heard that he developed any psychosomatic illnesses. Apparently he slept well. He had a good appetite, or so it seems. It all comes under the heading of duty, self-sacrifice, and obedience. Eichmann was devoted to duty and proud of his job.
The sanity of Eichmann is disturbing. We equate sanity with a sense of justice, with humaneness, with prudence, with the capacity to love and understand other people. We rely on the sane people of the world to preserve it from barbarism, madness, destruction. And now it begins to dawn on us that it is precisely the sane ones who are the most dangerous.
It is the sane ones, the well-adapted ones, who can without qualms and without nausea aim the missile, and press the buttons that will initiate the great festival of destruction that they, the sane ones, have prepared. What makes us so sure, after all, that the danger comes from a psychotic getting into a position to fire the first shot in a nuclear war? Psychotics will he suspect. The sane ones will keep them far from the button. No one suspects the sane, and the sane ones will have perfectly good reasons, logical, well-adjusted reasons, for firing the shot. They will be obeying sane orders that have come sanely down the chain of command. And because of their sanity they will have no qualms at all. When the missiles take off, then, it will be no mistake. We can no longer assume that because a man is “sane” he is therefore in his “right mind.” The whole concept of sanity in a society where spiritual values have lost their meaning is itself meaningless. A man can be “sane” in the limited sense that he is not impeded by disordered emotions from acting in a cool, orderly tier, according to the needs and dictates of the social situation in which he finds himself. He can be perfectly “adjusted.” God knows, perhaps such people can be perfectly adjusted even in hell itself.
The “sanity” of modern humans is about as useful to us as the huge bulk and muscles of the dinosaur. If we were a little less sane, a little more doubtful, a little more aware of our absurdities and contradictions, perhaps there might be a possibility of our survival. But if we are sane, too sane … perhaps we must say that in a society like ours the worst insanity is to be totally without anxiety, totally “sane.”
–Thomas Merton from Raids on the Unspeakable [Creative comic above by Dharma Comics ;-)]