I have thought often how it was possible that scores of German soldiers – people, all of them – could take such an active part in mass killings and torture of the Holocaust. It might be that some power was driving the war for its own political reasons, but how could such a thing be made possible – the utter brutality of man against man, rampant shootings and torture like frivolous entertainment? Why were so many soldiers doing it? They were normal people from normal backgrounds, only vested with power. Is that enough to explain how they could be driven to such mindless violence? They certainly did not look driven. They enjoyed themselves doing it. Who took away all the humanity?
When I watch movies of World War II, and I see parts where German soldiers terrorize Jews, making them stand in line to have their heads shot off, making them dance and do funny stuff for them, I am reminded vividly of a more modern form of suppressed human terrorism – ragging, some of which I have seen first hand.
The reason ragging springs so readily to my mind is because I believe there is a deep vein of the same thing running beneath both of these. The war isn’t over yet. What caused the German soldiers to act so still pulses in the blood of people around you.
The principal motive of ragging is to terrorize, and to assert one’s authority over another through this terrorism, convincing them of the power one holds over them. It is the need to feel this power within oneself, to savour the sheer primality of it, licking every last drop, prolonging it, making it more intensive, watching another being quiver under one’s power, – that one indulges in ragging. Another reason that adds to these is a possible absence of respect or recognition or power from any other source in life. These factors don’t place the World War II cruelties too far from ragging. It might have been a most extreme form of what ragging is, but the primal instincts driving it were similar.
That makes you a little scared? That makes you wonder why there’s no serious brutality going on around us right now? Well, excuse me, in recent times there have been beatings-up, killings and suicides in the name of ragging, and coming from students who neither are living through troubled times nor having to go through the stresses of war-ridden days and the life of a soldier. But of course, we are nowhere near a World War situation, with rampant cruelty and killings going on. The reason for that is simple: this is not a convenient time.
That might seem harsh, but if you lift all the restrictions on our actions, all the human and social rules, and all the legal reasons why we cannot indulge in killings and torture and terrorism, – in short, if you introduce pure chaos, mayhem, and zero accountability, – you just wait and see what people around you turn into. Just think about it. You are free to do anything, and it will just be forgotten. No one will ask you about it later in life, no one will want you to account for it, no one will tell you to serve any sentences because of what you have done. And you have been given power over another. It’s like you have become invisible, untouchable for a few days. Or that you are in a time warp, and whatever you do will be wiped off the history of Time after an interval. Think of all the things you would like to do. Even very innocent-looking people can change colours drastically under such circumstances.
Read about the Stanford Prison Experiment for a riveting and perhaps deeply disturbing insight into this fundamental human character.
Among Indian youth, there is a charming culture of shouting and making weird noises and animal calls every time there’s a power cut and the lights go out. That’s what I am talking about. You can never do that when the light is on. You would be marked out. That’s not the law of the land then. But the dark suddenly takes away the accountability. You can shout but not be identified when the light comes back on. That darkness is so reassuring, so relieving. Its a whole new, much more liberal rule. It sort of unchains you from your social coils for some time, lets you drop loosely. And you can shout whatever you want. And so people shout.
This thing happens often in our hostel. I remember one instance particularly, in the canteen. The lights suddenly go out, and the shouting starts. Between the frenzied hollers there is a single high-pitched scream. I turn my head towards its source and hold it there. The light suddenly comes back on. I am thunderstruck. I see a gaping mouth suddenly being shut, and its owner giving meek looks all around and a smile. The guy surprises the hell out of me. He is the most meek, innocent looking guy I have ever seen. I never could imagine that when the lights go out, he would shout like that.
It has fascinated me, every time I have thought about it, about exactly how dangerous people are. I am not being paranoid. I swear I am not. I am just reporting a feeling based on evidence, reflections and observation. I swear there’s something in me too that will only come out when such chaos reigns. I don’t know myself what it is, although I have tried imagining myself in such a scenario and figuring out what I would be doing. It surprises me always to think and to see that people around me who I thought to be innocent and simple turn out to have such power-hungry sides. Their numbers are too much, I have noted recently, than what I once thought. There are many people who I thought would never be able to terrorize anyone. But I see them doing that to the juniors now, and I am surprised.
Once again, the problem is of convenience. Being a 2nd year at the time the freshers arrive is a pre-vested position of power. Custom and tradition and unwritten rules already dictate that 2nd years must exercise a certain measure of authority over the freshers. Seated within this sudden cocoon of power, it is very easy to try an entertain your whims once in a while. It’s just too easy. It’s been made easy for you. It’s a huge temptation. I know because I have felt that temptation. The freshers are expecting, almost willing, to be subservient to such treatment. It’s quite a temptation.
Something similar, I believe, explains those Nazi soldiers’ conduct. It was a convenient time for them to try out their temptations of savouring power. The war was a convenient time, just as being in 2nd year is a convenient time for the 2nd years. A convenient time and convenient circumstances. the Jews were, by law, bound to bear all tortures. If the law hanging above everyone’s head changes, so do our conduct. There is very little by way of intrinsic moral code. It is a cumbersome product of the penal code, and hence just as changeable.
Civilization around is a fickle facade, then. It’s being held by a thin balance. People are moving around, bound and restrained by moral, social and legal codes, quivering to burst out of them, afraid to do so because no one else is doing it. Doing such a thing would mean marking oneself out and being subject to punishment. But in a situation of chaos, none of that holds. Everyone is practising the same lawlessness. There’s no danger of being marked out. That is the law of the land then. Frail moral codes then fall apart.
So we are hanging in a thin balance then. Violence and terror flows through the bloods of people around you. Fortunately, the light holds, and is not going out now. But once it does, who knows who will start shouting?
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