Tonight I’ve watched “John Rabe” about the Nanking massacre and “Hiroshima”, about the use of the first atomic bomb in war. No surprise, I’ve been thinking about mass death. I heard there was a study done on how people perceive large numbers of needy, but I can’t for the life of me find it. The study concluded that people’s empathy for a person in need goes down the more people there are. This is easy to see in the media. A lone white college girl is kidnapped on spring break in the Caribbean and everyone is captivated; 400,000 people die in Darfur genocide and people turn to the sports page.
I think psychologically we are unable to grasp horror in large numbers. If you see someone murdered in front of your eyes, that would be traumatic; yet we don’t multiply this feeling by the number of people killed. The comedian Eddie Izzard touches on this:
He’s being comical there, but I really believe he is onto something. I think our brains really do shut down at some point. We simply cannot comprehend large numbers of dead. Even our language fails to convey the horror of what we are describing. At that point those adjectives become numb, ineffective.
Horror. Pure horror. Does that word mean anything? Does it evoke in you the feeling it names? Does it have any impact at all when talking about such levels of mass death? I don’t think language is able to convey the soul destroying evil it attempts to describe. I think you can only see it, and unless you witness it first hand you’ll never fully feel the impact.
A doctor who was on the outskirts of Hiroshima and survived described a sight that has haunted him his entire life: The bomb had just exploded, and he was quickly making his way through the woods to town when about 3 kilometers out he came across this creature. The creature was unlike anything he had ever seen before. Pure black from top to bottom, with grotesque limbs, with something that appeared to be a face, but there were no eyes or mouth, staggering through the woods blindly. When he carefully approached this…thing… he realized that it was not a strange demon, but a man. The fireball had burned his flesh off his body and fused the limbs together. It was chard skeleton walking towards him. The man, what was left of him, died right there in front of the doctor. When the doctor got to town he saw thousands of these chard husks.
You can listen to what these people saw, and see pictures of the burned bodies, but you can’t fully grasp what it feels like. It is literally incomprehensible.
I’ve heard stories about the allied soldiers who first discovered that Nazi death camps. Many of them were haunted for the rest of their lives. Seeing something like that has to tear the humanity from you. I had a friend who’s grandfather liberated a camp, he said that he could never forget the smell, that it gave him nightmares every night.
Sure you can go to museums, see the pictures, watch films, even visit the camps (I’ve personally been to Dachau), but you can never fully taste the horror.
I remember standing there among the row of prisoner barracks in Dachau. It was a quiet, peaceful place. It was no different from a park, except that everyone was very quiet. Today Hiroshima is a bustling city of one million. The streets are full of people happily going about their day. If you didn’t know your history, you would have no idea that just a few decades ago these sites were places of mass death and suffering. Even with knowing your history it is hard for the gravity of the atrocities to sink in.