‘The most fantastic association of men imaginable’

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Jeremy Joseph Christian, 35, of North Portland, Oregon is pictured in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters May 27, 2017. Portland Police Bureau/Handout via REUTERS

I am trying to write about the fact that no matter how terrible or previously unimaginable a politician or an ideology might be, if you turn over enough rocks you can find people fully ready to offer their support. There is no place on the political spectrum, and no manner of evil, that lacks ready supporters, at all times, at any time.

I am trying to figure out if these under-rock dwellers are there all along, in every society, simply waiting for their moment, or if they somehow spring up like mushrooms in response to the emergence of the person or ideology they have been waiting for.

This idea first struck me when I was reading what was for me a formative textbook on the Holocaust: “Approaches to Auschwitz,” by Richard Rubenstein and John Roth. In their chapter on the Nazi regime, Rubenstein and Roth briefly profile various SS figures we now know to have been disastrously evil, like Heinrich Himmler, Adolf Eichmann, and Reinhard Heydrich. Rubenstein and Roth quote Heinz Hohne in describing them as “the most fantastic association of men imaginable.” (Fantastic here means “fantastical,” as in bizarre and uncannily evil.)

If Germany had been in a different place politically in the early 1930s, Adolf Hitler would never have emerged as a political leader and then as chancellor. If Hitler had not become the leader of Germany, men like Himmler, Eichmann, and Heydrich would have remained under the rocks from which they sprang, and where they belonged.

But Germany was where it was, Hitler did become ruler of Germany, the SS did become the power it became, and Himmler, Eichmann, Heydrich and company crawled out from under their rocks and did the evil that they did.

This leads me to the provisional conclusion that no matter how terrible an ideology, regime, or leader might be, he or she can always find people within their society to support them and advance their agenda. Look under enough rocks, and there they are.

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as that. We know that however racist or cruel these men and their underlings were prior to the Nazi Party taking power, their evil accelerated along with the evil of Hitler and his regime. Hitlerism activated, inflamed, and deepened the evil possibilities perhaps already latent in each man’s character. The most radical conclusion along those lines is that each man might well have lived a perfectly ordinary adult life if it had not been for the time in which they lived and the regime in which they came to serve.

I am thinking about these things in light of three recent horrifying events in America. First there was the slaying of Bowie State University student Richard Collins III, who was fatally stabbed in an apparent racist hate crime by University of Maryland student Sean Christopher Urbanski, according to police.

Then there was the horrendous event on the Portland transit line last week, in which a man named Jeremy Christian was charged with fatally stabbing Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche and Rick Best when they tried to intervene to stop him from spewing hate speech at a Muslim train passenger.

Most recently, a Native American named James Smith-Kramer was killed in a hit-and-run attack that appears to have been racially motivated, as the driver allegedly was shouting racial slurs before running over Smith-Kramer and his friend.

The most fantastic association of men imaginable? White men, spewing racial hatred, attacking people of color, and those who defend them. They keep crawling out from under their rocks. They appear to be everywhere right now. There ‘s no wall we can build that can keep them out, because they are our neighbors.

Turn over enough rocks in America, throughout our history, and we could always have found white supremacists.

But it is more than reasonable to wonder what exactly it is that right now, in 2017, is activating, inflaming, and deepening the evil possibilities already latent in the character of white supremacists like these. I don’t think we have to look very hard to find out.