It was sheer coincidence that the evening chosen to see Schindler's List at the local movie house coincided with the appalling news of the massacre in the Hebron mosque. But the power of Steven Spielberg's film about the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust lent added weight to the tragedy of the shootings on the West Bank.
As you watched the coldblooded commandant of the film's forced labor camp in occupied Poland use innocent Jewish prisoners for target practice, the mind turned inevitably to Baruch Goldstein, the Brooklyn-born physician who unloaded three magazines of ammunition from his assault rifle into innocent Muslims at prayer last Friday, killing at least 39 of them.
The crimes cannot be equated. The Holocaust was a government policy that exterminated millions. Goldstein's crime was the act of an extremist, rightly and promptly condemned by the government of Israel.
But the horror of this century, repeated over and over, is that people can be brought so easily to see their neighbors not just as enemies but as non-human objects, to be liquidated without a second thought as an affirmation of racial or national or religious or ethnic pride.
What is this curse that mocks this century's advances in education, in science and, yes, in international cooperation? Hannah Arendt and other philosophers have wrestled with the question, but it almost defies understanding. Beneath the veneer of civilization, there is a strain of tribalism in us that can lead people to commit coldblooded murder. It is as if they feel driven to act in ways that not only destroy lives but deny the essential humanity of their victims.
The most virulent expressions are often racial. Throughout this country's history, the stain of slavery _ the institutionalized expression of the impulse to dehumanize others _ has besmirched our professions of equality and freedom. It surfaces still, in much of the mail I get when I have written about crime or welfare or education. Too many white Americans still consign African-Americans to a lesser status, believing "they" won't obey the law, or work for a living or try to improve themselves through schooling.
Americans are not unique in suffering these twisted thoughts. Around the world, segregation and stratification on the basis of race and color are ubiquitous.
When atrocities are committed in the name of nationality or religion, they become a perversion of our own making, a reminder that even the noblest of institutions can have appallingly ugly undersides.
Nothing is more basic and yet more elevating to humans than the religious concepts that reconcile us to each other and to the great mysteries of life and death. But it is probably the case that more men and women and children have been slaughtered in the name of religious faith than in almost any other cause.
National pride and ethnic pride can be strongly positive forces. But they have been twisted so often into excuses for violence that they can seem a curse. The slaughter in what was Yugoslavia no sooner abates for a moment than the Middle East erupts.
The truly appalling aspect of this is that so often, it is the best minds _ those which ought to be able to distinguish between the healthy and the virulent forms of religiosity, of ethnic and national pride _ that succumb to fanaticism and lead others to the slaughter. How can a physician, a man trained to heal and save lives, become so gripped by ideology or hate or fear that he becomes a mass murderer? One might as well ask how those civilized Germans, with their great gifts to music and literature and philosophy, could follow the likes of Hitler.
One of the fascinating aspects of Spielberg's film is that he does not disguise the moral ambiguity of his protagonist, the ambitious German industrialist. Schindler is seemingly quite happy exploiting the Jewish slave labor the Nazis provide him, but he rebels when those same workers are threatened with mass extermination.
In real life, Schindler's qualms saved lives, which is why he has been singled out for sympathetic examination in this movie. But he also took part in a system that slaughtered millions of others not lucky enough to be on his list.
Everywhere one turns _ in the news and in the theater _ that damnable duality of human nature confronts you. There is no escaping it.
Washington Post Writers Group