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A thought from Jean Amery

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The thought is this: that the judgment against the torturer that persists in the mind of the tortured has a moral authority unequaled by any verdict of official justice. Thus Amery offers a clue to the metaphysical lie underneath the political lie of omission in Barack Obama’s assurance to Americans that he would “look to the future not the past.” Though certain acts carried out under the previous administration were declared to have been torture and henceforth illegal, Obama in effect pledged to hold no-one accountable for those acts. This has meant in practice a denial by the government of appeals by the tortured to bring to light the evidence of their sufferings.

Jean Amery was the pen name of Hans Mayer, an Austrian-born essayist whose resistance work in Nazi-occupied Belgium led to his internment in Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Bergen-Belsen. The following passage comes from his book of memoirs and speculative essays, At the Mind’s Limits; the title of the chapter is “Resentments”:

When I stand by my resentments, when I admit that in deliberating our problem I am “biased,” I still know that I am the captive of the moral truth of the conflict. It seems logically senseless to me to demand objectivity in the controversy with my torturers, with those who helped them, and with the others, who merely stood by silently. The atrocity as atrocity has no objective character. Mass murder, torture, injury of every kind are objectively nothing but chains of physical events, describable in the formalized language of the natural sciences. They are facts within a physical system, not deeds within a moral system. The crimes of National Socialism had no moral quality for the doer, who always trusted in the norm-system of his Fuehrer and his Reich. The monster, who is not chained by his conscience to his deed, sees it from his viewpoint only as an objectification of his will, not as a moral event. The Flemish SS-man Wajs, who—-inspired by his German masters–beat me on the head with a shovel handle whenever I didn’t work fast enough, felt the tool to be an extension of his hand and the blows to be emanations of his psycho-physical dynamics. Only I possessed, and still possess, the moral truth of the blows that even today roar in my skull, and for that reason I am more entitled to judge; not only more than the culprit but also more than society—-which thinks only about its continued existence. The social body is occupied merely with safeguarding itself and could not care less about a life that has been damaged. At the very best, it looks forward, so that such things don’t happen again. But my resentments are there in order that the crime become a moral reality for the criminal, in order that he be swept into the truth of his atrocity.

David Bromwich

David Bromwich's latest book is "American Breakdown: The Trump Years and How They Befell Us." He teaches literature at Yale and is a frequent contributor to the Huffington Post and has written on politics and culture for The New Republic, The Nation, The New York Review of Books, and other magazines. He is editor of Edmund Burke's selected writings On Empire, Liberty, and Reform and co-editor of the Yale University Press edition of On Liberty.

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