My friend Nicole de Lisle recently shared on Facebook a Washington Post commentary. It is based on a 2015 speech that former FBI Director Jim Comey gave. It is called: “Why I Require FBI Agents to Visit the Holocaust Museum.”
It is a very thoughtful piece (link here).
What particularly moved me was this:
I require every new FBI special agent and intelligence analyst to go to the Holocaust Museum. Naturally, I want them to learn about abuse of authority on a breathtaking scale. But I want them to confront something more painful and more dangerous: I want them to see humanity and what we are capable of.
I want them to see that, although this slaughter was led by sick and evil people, those sick and evil leaders were joined by, and followed by, people who loved their families, took soup to a sick neighbor, went to church and gave to charity.
Good people helped murder millions. And that’s the most frightening lesson of all — that our very humanity made us capable of, even susceptible to, surrendering our individual moral authority to the group, where it can be hijacked by evil. Of being so cowed by those in power. Of convincing ourselves of nearly anything.
In their minds, the murderers and accomplices of Germany, and Poland, and Hungary, and so many, many other places didn’t do something evil. They convinced themselves it was the right thing to do, the thing they had to do. That’s what people do. And that should truly frighten us.
That is why I send our agents and our analysts to the Holocaust Museum. I want them to stare at us and realize our capacity for rationalization and moral surrender.
I think the commentary is a great reminder of how people often can kid themselves. I see it in myself. I think it is a great reminder that we often can lose our bearings and go completely off the rails, all the while thinking that we’re on the right path.
“Our capacity for moral surrender.” That’s an incredible concept that requires a great deal of reflection.